What is Modernism?

A commenter, enowning, responded to my previous post by noting:

It’s somewhat surprising to find Heidegger called a Modernist since the usual aspersion cast his way is postmodenrnist. You should add some balance and explain what Catholic theologians like Karl Rahner and Joseph Ratzinger found in Heidegger. They are respected and widely read, whereas no one translated the contributions of Max Müller and Martin Honecker (Rahner’s doctoral advisor). I’m not defending Heidegger from his faults, just indicating things are more complicated than black or white.


I think it’s debatable:

  1. whether post-modernism should be considered as part of philsophical modernism – an application of the modernist critique upon itself in the form of deconstruction, etc.; and
  2. whether, if modernism and post-modernism are two separate things, Heidegger falls into the latter category.

Certainly, in his devotion to the Nazi regime, he bought into one of the most repulsive of what Lyotard would call “metanarratives,” since the Nazi regime viewed itself as the summit of not just German, but world history. Rein Staal captures this distinction quite well, in the December 2008 issue of First Things:

Martin Heidegger, one of the movement’s most famous former members, had said
that the “inner truth and greatness” of the Nazis’ vision “consisted in modern
man’s encounter with global technology.” Surveying the wreckage of that
encounter after the war, the German Catholic writer Romano Guardini saw instead
the completion and the collapse of the modern project.

On this issue, it’s Heidegger on the modernist side, and Guardini on the post-modernist side (although his conclusions were radically different, of course, as the article acknowledges). Still, I’ll readily confess that I’m no expert here, so if philosophically, Heidegger should be grouped with Foucault, Baudrillard and Lyotard, so be it.

In any case, my use of “Modernism” is in the sense that term is used within Catholicism: the sense contemplated by Lamentabili Sane, for example. It’s the idea that the Church needs to be updated (or replaced) through reliance upon an external source of Truth from the Deposit of Faith. This can take two forms: one, that science “disproves” the Faith, and that the Church should cease believing Her historic Faith; or two, that our modern moral consciences are so much better attuned to true morality that the Church’s morality should be updated to match our own.

The first area is complex: certainly, all valid science affirms truth; truth can’t contradict itself, and always points to God; and therefore, all valid scientific discoveries must be viewed as compatible with the Church’s religious beliefs. Sometimes, this means readjusting some of our underlying and non-dogmatic assumptions (e.g., on the age of the world), but most of the time it’s simply an acknowledgment that science and religion, while compatible, aren’t the same field (just as biology and chemistry complement, but do not replicate, one another).

I’m more concerned here with the moral questions than the science ones. Christian dogma and doctrine can develop interally or externally. Internal development is “organic development” while external is pollution. For example, the real development of Christmas was built upon what the Church already knew (that Jesus was born, and that this is a cause for celebration). It’s an organic development. If, on the other hand, the Church began celebrating Eid al-Adha, based on what She learned from the Koran, it would be a pollution of the Faith. In moral areas (chattel slavery, duelling, etc.), we’ve seen cultural shifts as Christians began to apply the lessons of the Church to specific areas where they’d ignored Her teachings previously. In other moral areas (women’s ordination and homosexuality, specifically), we’ve seen attempts to pollute the Faith; that is, advocates have attempted to soften the Church’s stance by appeal to alien moralities. The unstated assumption is that the Catholic Church’s Deposit of Faith is incomplete for moral development: that left with what the Church believes alone, you (as a Christian) will not only be incomplete, but even in the wrong on whatever the issue in question is. This notion is what is meant by Modernism.

So the question is different here because the Church is the final and infallible authority on all questions of faith and morals (unlike scientific questions). Modernism, as the Church frequently uses the term, is the undermining of the Church’s claims about Herself. For example, a dissenting Catholic might say, “the Church claims x on an issue of faith, but we know from history that this isn’t so” – for example, you’ll sometimes hear that the papacy doesn’t originate with Peter, or that the Church didn’t originally bar women from being presbyters, or similar (false) historical claims. In the moral realm, you’ll sometimes hear the Church’s views on a certain issue of morality termed outdated or anachronistic, as if what is moral today may be immoral under the same circumstances tomorrow.

At its worst, Modernism is an incredibly smug philosophy, as that Time article about Bishop Barnes demonstrated. He was a very smart guy (brilliant matematician, from what I understand), but his inflated sense of his own intelligence made him think he was too smart for the Church’s Faith (calling the Virgin Birth “a crude, semipagan story”), and morals (that our condemnation of exterminating populations of undesirable races was quaint and outmoded in the face of population growth of undesirables). Virtually anytime someone attempts to come up with a better moral system than the Church’s, get the body bags ready, because it’s going to be messy.

As to your final note, on the lack of balance, my post was more of what I just said (that moral systems devised by the standards of the world are dangerous and deadly while presenting themselves as more humane) than an attempt to take on Heidegger in full. That said, let me offer two more good First Things articles on this subject. The first is an old 1993 article in which William Hughes, former ADA from Boston, argues that “the thought of Martin Heidegger bears a logical and necessary connection to his support of National Socialism in Germany in the 1930s and 40s and that his philosophy constitutes an historical cause of that experience.” In other words, that not only did Heidegger happen to be a Nazi, but his philsophy helped propel Nazism. The second is one from the latest edition of First Things, written by Michael Wyschogrod. He concludes that:

I do not agree with those who consider Heidegger’s Nazism and anti-Semitism
(and there was anti-Semitism, even if not in his published works) minor cosmetic
defects. But I also do not agree with those who think of Heidegger as only
slightly better than Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazi hack philosopher executed in
Nuremberg. The tragedy of Heidegger lies precisely in his being a philosopher of
high quality incarnated in the body of a Nazi.

This latter one seems to have more of the balance you desire, because Wyschogrod clearly respects and grasps the significance of Heidegger’s philosophical insights (much more than, say, I do). Finally, your own blog seems to have a wealth of information on Heidegger. Do you have any posts you’d suggest which capture this tension well?

1 Comment

  1. Regarding modernism, I normally understand to be the period from the birth of empirical science, through the Enlightenment, the industrial revolution, postivism, and ending with Husserl; the last major thinker who thought rationalism was sufficient to explain everything. But that’s defining terms.

    I find Heidegger and XXth century Catholicism to be saying something similar about modernity: we have no fight with science (let’s accept the Big Bang origins and evolution, if that’s where the evidence points), but there’s more going on, science and rationalism don’t address matters outside their scope.

    To me Heidegger’s, and so many German philsophers’, tendency to go on about the German people and their historical destiny, is a contingent quirk, and not why I read him. It may be an issue Germans readers have to grapple with, but not pertinent to non-Germans. German philosophers who go on about Germany were a dime a dozen, so what’s interesting about Heidegger, the reason non-Germans read him, is because of what he has to say about other domains. Morally he was reprehensible individual. We shouldn’t hold his up as an exemplary life for youngsters, or put up statues honoring him in our civic spaces. But there are reasons why many philosphers refer to him, despite his political incorrectness.

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