Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Will the Twentieth Century be Seen as a Dark Age?

What will be the verdict of the intellectual historians, who are living more than 100 or 150 years from today, on the twentieth century? Will the twentieth century be seen as an Age of Enlightenment or Reason—after all, in these 100 years, material prosperity has increased more than in all of the rest of human history? But it is also possible that the twentieth century may be regarded as an Age of Darkness because this period saw the rise of several collectivist movements—socialism, communism, nazism and fascism—which massacred millions of people.

Technology is one area in which twentieth century has excelled. So can this period be seen as an Age of Technology?

Randall Collins, in his book The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change, points out that human beings recognize what is creative only by contrast. This means that if the technological advancement in rest of twenty-first century and the twenty-second century is on a much greater scale, then the twentieth century technology will, in comparison, look like an age of mediocrities.

Here’s an excerpt from Collins’s book, Chapter 9, “Academic Expansion as a Two-Edged Sword: Medieval Christendom,” (page 501):
Studies of intellectual life have preferred to focus on periods of creativity. Yet we recognize what is creative only by contrast. Comparison of the dark side against the light, and against the gray in between, is necessary for seeing the structural conditions associated with all of the varieties of intellectual life. A second reason to study stagnation is perhaps of greater immediate significance. There is no guarantee that we ourselves—denizens of the late twentieth century—inhabit a period of creativity. There is some likelihood that future intellectual historians looking back will concentrate on the great ideas of the first third of the century, and regard the rest as a falling off into mediocrity. 
In the area of philosophy and art, the twentieth century has not achieved much. Many of the philosophical and artistic movements of the twentieth century—logical positivism, existentialism, postmodernism, and others—have had an embarrassingly short career. So the intellectual historians who are looking at the twentieth century from the vantage point of more than 100 to 150 years in the future, may arrive at the conclusion that little philosophical work got done in this period. We look at the Middle Ages as the Dark Ages, but we might be in a similar situation today.

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