Philosophy has lost its place in modern culture-it has failed to respond to the disenchantment inflicted by science and the death of God. Jay Bernstein blames both Anglo-American and continental philosophers for this predicament. He says that Gillian Rose, the British thinker, was among the few who brought a modernist sensibility to philosophyby Jay Bernstein / March 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Nature, in ceasing to be divine, ceases to be human.” Penned in 1891 by John Dewey, the father-to-be of American pragmatism, these words describe the bleak spiritual landscape created by modern science and rapid industrialisation. For Dewey, the size of the disaster-the death of God-defines the size of the problems to which philosophy must now respond: how can there be meaning in the face of a wholly indifferent, godless universe? What happens to truth once there is no guarantee of one “big” truth? These were not just “philosophical questions,” but the questions that had to be asked and answered-by philosophy-if life, anybody’s life, was to be intelligible at all.
Today, philosophers no longer believe this to be the case. They have abandoned the “big questions” which once gave their discipline its point and meaning. By forgetting these questions, however, philosophy-once at the centre of culture-is now itself in danger of being forgotten. Contemporary philosophy is in the midst of a crisis, and yet seems unaware of it. Worse still, this crisis is self-imposed: there is a place for philosophy in modern culture, but the number of philosophers who are responding can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Among them was the British thinker Gillian Rose, whose death in December, aged 48, is the occasion of this essay.
Pragmatism-baldly defined as the view that whatever works is true-is symptomatic of the fate of contemporary philosophy. Its other founders, William James and Charles Sanders Peirce, shared, at least at the beginning of their careers, Dewey’s crisis-ridden, modernist sensibility. This modernist sensibility involved a consciousness of a series of absences bequeathed by the Enlightenment-of gaps between knowledge and truth, power and authority, existence and purpose, history and meaning. Contemporary philosophy, if it were to be responsible-if it were to take the question of modernity seriously-would have to find new ways of thinking such terms as “truth,” “spirit,” and “meaning,” to reform or transfigure them.
The Enlightenment was supposed to have dethroned God and kings and replaced them with reason. To insist that a post-Enlightenment modernist sensibility must still tackle the “big questions” is to admit that the rationalist project of the Enlightenment has failed: God and the kings may have been dethroned, but as yet nothing like a compelling account of a secular world, free from myth and superstition, has taken their place. Sadly, few philosophers are concerned to fill…