MODERNITY AND POSTMODERNISM: STRUCTURALISM AND DECONSTRUCTION
Of all social institutions, language is least amenable to initiative. It blends with the life of society, and the latter, inert by nature, is a prime conservative force.
Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics To pretend, I actually do the thing: I have therefore only pretended to pretend.
Jacques Derrida, InterviewMODERNITY
or many historians and literary theorists, the Enlightenment (or the Age of Reason in the 18th century) is synonymous with modernity (from the Latin word modo, meaning "just now"). That its roots predate this time period ^is unquestioned, with a few scholars even dating its beginnings to 1492, cJ coincident with Columbus's journeys to the Americas, and its overall spirit ^ lastinguntil the middle of the twentieth century. At the center of this view of j the world lie two prominent features: a belief that reason is humankind's best 0 guide to life and that science, above all other human endeavors, could lead humanity to a new promised land. Philosophically, modernity rests on the foundations laid by René Descartes (1596-1650), a French philosopher, scientist, andmathematician. Ultimately, declares Descartes, the only thing one cannot doubt is one's own existence. Certainty and knowledge begin with the self. "I think, therefore I am" thus becomes the only solid foundation upon which knowledge and a theory of knowledge can be built. For Descartes, the rational essence freed from superstition, human passions, and one's often irrational imagination allows humankind todiscover truth about the physical world.
Whereas Descartes's teachings elevated to new heights the individual's rational essence and humankind's ability to reason, the scientific writings and discoveries of both Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) allowed science to be likewise coronated. Thanks to Bacon, the
Chapter 5 • Modernity and Postmodernism 97
scientificmethod has become part of everyone's elementary and high school education. It is through experimentation, conducting experiments, making inductive generalizations, and verifying the results that one can discover truths about the physical world. And thanks to Newton, the physical world is no longer a mystery but a mechanism that operates according to a system of laws that can be understood by anythinking, rational human being who is willing to apply the principles of the scientific method to the physical universe.
Armed with an unparalleled confidence in humankind's capacity to reason—the ability to inquire and grasp necessary conditions essential for seeking out such undoubtable truths as provided by mathematics—and the assurance that science can lead the way to a complete understanding ofthe physical world, the Enlightenment (i.e., modern) scholar was imbued with a spirit of progress. Anything the enlightened mind set as its goal, these scholars believed, was attainable. Through reason and science, all poverty, ignorance, and injustice would finally be banished.
Of all Enlightenment thinkers, Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) may best exemplify the characteristics of modernity.Gleaned from self- portraits contained in his Autobiography, Franklin is the archetypal modern philosopher-scientist. Self-assured, Franklin declares that he "pulled himself up by his own bootstraps," overcoming poverty and ignorance through education to become America's first internationally known and respected philosopher-scientist-diplomat. Believing in the power and strength of the individual mind,he delighted in the natural world and decided early in life to know all possible aspects of his universe. Accordingly, he abandoned superstitions and myths and placed his trust in science to lead him to truths about his world. Through observations, experiments, and conclusions drawn upon the data discovered by using the scientific method, Franklin believed he could obtain and know the necessary...
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