Can Metamodernism, based in the exchange and continual revision of ideas, offer an alternative to the cultural problems of postmodernism and relativism?
Previous articles have discussed the negative tendencies exhibited by the modern left and some of the reasons why we need a new left. Now it’s time to reflect on more positive elements, a viable alternative to the problematic postmodernism. Many see such a solution in the philosophy of Metamodernism.
In recent years there has been a small but increasingly organised left-wing opposition to postmodernism and cultural relativism. With luck, skill and determination, this could coalesce into the movement we desperately need.
We can describe this new approach as having a ‘Metamodern’ philosophy, meaning ‘beyond Modernism.’ In this period, there will be a mass of conflicting beliefs and approaches, as there should be. This article will focus on the most interesting and hopeful elements as I see them.
What is Metamodernism?
First of all, Metamodernism accepts the universal truth of an existence external to ourselves. Without this, all knowledge is meaningless. If what we think creates the world, then we don’t have to learn, because our perceptions will become reality. In this case, we may as well continue to believe in a universe with continuity, history, and independent operation, because if it does not already exist, we will imagine it into existence regardless.
Metamodernism is also turning a page on the old debate over the human ability to understand the world around us. It may have been difficult for earlier philosophers to understand how the brain creates simulations, or models, of objects and mechanisms. Fortunately, we now have a direct analogy in the form of computer programming.
“Metamodernism is also turning a page on the old debate over the human ability to understand the world around us”
The hardware we use is not precisely comparable to a human brain, but recent developments in artificial neural networks show that we can create programmes that learn to categorise and sort images. Physics engines can approximate the movement of physical objects under gravity, without having to come close to representing the workings of individual atoms, in the same way that we can recall objects accurately enough to remember them, but not necessarily every detail.
This analogy can help us understand the distinction between the impact of nature and nurture on the mind. The human body, producing primitive signals such as emotions and instincts, can be thought of as hardware. Our personalities, on the other hand, are the software.
Hardware is mostly permanent, though it is malleable in some ways, whereas software is malleable, though it too may contain some permanent elements. Our senses are inputs, of course, but all other signals from the body are inputs, too. It is up to the conscious mind to process those inputs and produce a sensible output – just like an artificial neural network does.
Striking a balance: individuality, impulses, and improvement
Not only can this help us understand humanity, it can help us improve as individuals as well. For example, if we are careful and methodical, we can plan our meals in order to obtain healthy levels of nutrients we need to thrive. Even at such a healthy standard, however, we may continue to feel hungry. But obeying this signal and continuing to eat would be a mistake; we can process this signal and determine it to be erroneous.
To obey our instincts, to give in to our urges against rational thought, is to discard one of the greatest gifts evolution has given us: the ability to determine, for ourselves, how to process the information our brains receive.
“To obey our instincts, to give in to our urges against rational thought, is to discard one of the greatest gifts evolution has given us: the ability to determine, for ourselves, how to process the information our brains receive”
Of course, just as foolish would be to suppress or ignore these signals without at least fully investigating their origins. For example, humans are social creatures and the vast majority of us desire companionship. In this case, regardless of what our goals in life may be, it would be foolish to isolate ourselves entirely from others given the potential psychological repercussions.
Rather than deny our natures, we should instead seek the healthiest methods of managing our desires, impulses, and natural tendencies. Metamodernism, therefore, understands that criticising the individual choices of others can be necessary for the advancement of humanity, regardless of whether those choices impact the world around them or not.
If we aim to end authoritarianism, we must approach freedom as responsible adults, not petulant teenagers. If we are prepared to declare ‘no gods, no masters’, then we must each be our own god and our own master.
‘Everything is a social construct’–really?
Although partially unshackled from instinctive action, our conscious minds are still dependent on sensory input. Our perception of the universe will therefore always be limited by the finite time and space which we occupy. No mortal being can fully comprehend reality, since we can only ever see a small part of it at a time. It is our perspective that is relative, not the universe itself.
“It is our perspective that is relative, not the universe itself”
The task of the Metamodern analyst, scientist, or philosopher, therefore, is not to reveal a fundamental truth about the universe, but to improve upon the models we use. We must acknowledge that categorisation is a human behaviour that is necessary to understand a complicated world, and thus reject a simple dichotomy between what is real and what is a social construct. Everything is a social construct; the only question is whether that construct improves or diminishes our ability to make practical sense of the world.
Metamodernism recognises the patterns and systems that govern the movements and behaviours of people, but also understand that an individual is far more complex than the sum of interactions between a few of these systems. Dismissing or judging a person without understanding anything more than the social groups into which these individuals fall is a deeply flawed and dangerous approach.
“Dismissing or judging a person without understanding anything more than the social groups into which these individuals fall is a deeply flawed and dangerous approach”
In the modern world, we must rely continually on the judgements and conclusions of others. When we accept a ride in a car from another person, we are trusting that person with our life. Not only that, but the designers of the car, the other drivers on the road, the urban planners who laid out the roads, and so on.
When our trust in other people becomes shaken, it can impact our ability to navigate, literally and metaphorically, through the world. Politics is becoming increasingly about choosing between two apparently comparable sources of evidence, each claiming the opposite. The side we end up on is, therefore, determined by whom we trust.
The real meaning of the Enlightenment
Metamodernism cautiously seeks reliable sources of information and doesn’t shy away from conflicting viewpoints if they can offer unique or interesting perspectives. If we can establish networks of trustworthy individuals and organisations, we can compensate for our limited perspectives by exploring multiple angles.
Ideas develop and spread according to the size of the networks in which people operate. The Earth contains billions of people, and the more we connect those people together in a healthy and productive fashion, the more accurate our understanding of the universe should become.
“The Earth contains billions of people, and the more we connect those people together in a healthy and productive fashion, the more accurate our understanding of the universe should become”
The power of democracy only becomes truly apparent when people share and discuss their views with each other. Imagine an election more like an academic examination. Each ‘voter’, upon stepping into their booth, rather than being asked to pick between the red team or blue team, is instead asked to solve a simple algebraic equation. Could you do it? Could the average person do it? Depending on the difficulty of the question, the possibility of a correct answer winning the majority of the vote may be very slim.
Now imagine people were told what the question was going to be in advance, and were allowed to confer with each other. Answering the question would become trivial for anyone who was prepared to listen to a trustworthy source.
Metamodernism sees itself as the latest part of a global, historical struggle to discern truth from error and justice from injustice. Rather than believing the Enlightenment to be the sole province of rich, white European men, Metamodernists conceive of a greater Enlightenment that connects philosophers, radicals, and iconoclasts from every century and every corner of the globe.
Enlightenment is a direction, not a destination, and anyone who believes he or she has achieved it is most assuredly going the wrong way. Every egalitarian movement thus far in history has failed because we did not yet understand how to resist tyranny and how to mobilise to prevent it from emerging within ourselves. We must give this past struggle meaning by learning from mistakes and doing better this time.
“Enlightenment is a direction, not a destination, and anyone who believes he or she has achieved it is most assuredly going the wrong way”
Once we have been armed with the understanding of our own limitations Metamodernism supplies us, we can begin to construct a new basis for moving towards freedom and equality.
This will be the topic of my next article.