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  • Writer's pictureDon Landes

Phil 275 From Modernism to Postmodernism, Concordia University

Course Taught:

Phil 275 From Modernism to Postmodernism, Concordia University, Fall 2012

Expanded Course Description:

In 1784, Immanuel Kant famously responded to the question “What is Enlightenment?” with the following motto: Sapere aude! (“Have the courage, the audacity, to know!”). With this famous answer, Kant captured the tenor of an entire moment in the History of Philosophy that was alive with the feeling of the Human Spirit emerging from the dark ages of dogmatic slumber that had plagued Europe for hundreds of years. Through the work of thinkers such as Leibniz, Descartes, Kant, Hume, and others, what we call “Modern Philosophy” offered something entirely new: a rational, self-transparent concept of the individual (or of the “mind”) and a concept for society to match. For Kant, the time had come for “man” to grow up, to demand access and insight into the knowledge of nature, politics, ethics, and metaphysics, and thereby to ultimately become a community of rational adults! The way out of our self-imposed immaturity is nothing other than through sincere practice and cultivation of Reason.

Fast-forward 200 years and we find one of the most prominent theorists of the “post-modern,” namely, French philosopher and sociologist Michel Foucault, taking up this very question again. Foucault argues that “modernity” is not a simple set of dates on a calendar, but rather an attitude that encompasses a set of cultural and institutional structures and forces. Indeed, in the answer offered by Kant, Foucault detects “the attitude of modernity,” which he contends is continually in struggle with what he calls the forces of “counter-modernity,” be they “pre-modern” or “post-modern.” As a cultural force, “modernity” sustains itself by stressing “man’s” new relation to time and “man’s” constitution of the “self” or “ego” as the autonomous subject of philosophy, from epistemology to ethics. What defines the “post-modern” attitude or ethos, then, is precisely a questioning of that which ties us to the Modern, and this will occupy us in this course. The “post-modern subject” is one that remains at least partially constructed by the modern ethos, just as our political institutions continue to reinforce the presuppositions of the Enlightenment.

What this suggests is that we, as “subjects,” are historically determined and (at least partially) socially constructed. Moreover, if this is the case, then the very mode of analysis of philosophical “introspection” must shift to genealogical or historical analysis of real institutions, structures across time, and the effects of power. Philosophy makes a mistake when it treats the self-reflecting “man” as the source of knowledge – “he” (and “she”) must be understood as situated historically and socially. This involves questioning the very character of the power structures that instituted “modernity” – are they as neutrally rational as they claimed to be, or were they racial, Eurocentric, masculine, etc.?

But before we can ask these questions, we must first follow the ebbs and flows of the “subject” and the political from modernity to post-modernity, for much has happened between Kant and Foucault! Our task this semester, then, is the difficult one of following out this narrative by keeping our eye on three interrelated themes: the subject, freedom, and social progress. We begin in modernity with Descartes, Hume, Rousseau, and Kant in order to map out the groundwork of these three themes. Our second unit will turn to modernity in transition. We’ll examine both critics and apologists for modernity, and consider the major movements of the 19th and 20th Centuries in relation to the modern human subject – discourses such as Marxism, Existentialism, Phenomenology, and Structuralism. The final unit will turn to the “post-modern” in thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Judith Butler. What critique of modernism can be offered, and do the post-modern alternatives offer us a philosophy adequate to our current hyper-industrial-technological society?

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