“Modern” and “Stupid”

It is great when a blog can go on autopilot and be taken over by contributions from readers.

In response to our request for help on understanding modernity, a reader provided the following quick input: 

There are multiple perspectives on ‘modernity,’ but the word lacks any analytic viability—it doesn’t mean much. Rather ‘modernity’ is a PROJECT, a political project, and the words ‘modern/traditional’ or ‘modernity’ have SOCIAL uses (i.e., they get used by people to mean certain things). Academics shouldn’t assume that it is an accurate descriptor of something coherent. Putting it crudely, the words ‘modern/traditional’ are like the word ‘stupid’ — people use it all the time (he is stupid, she is stupid) but that doesn’t mean anything (and certainly doesn’t mean that ‘he’ is ‘in fact’ stupid).  What we need to look at is: why people use it, what they think it means, and what are the effects of using it?

In response to the above comment, a second contributor suggested it contained a logical contradiction:

1. “Modern” has no content (“analytic viability”).
2. “Modern” is like the word “stupid.”
3. People use “stupid” all the time (“he is stupid,” “she is stupid”) but that doesn’t mean anything – and certainly doesn’t mean that “he” is “in fact” stupid.
4. “In fact stupid” implies “stupid” has some content.
5. By (2) “modern” has some content.

This contradicts (1).

And a third contributor added the following: 

Maybe postcolonial theorists have decided that there is nothing to the concept. In any case, just logically speaking, if they are willing to grant that there is a “project” (e.g., Habermas) then how is this project defined? If it is defined by “x” then why can’t one ask how far “x” has been realized in one society or another?

Perhaps I am wrong about this, but there appears to be some trace of the later Wittgenstein’s view of meaning at the heart of this view (summarized by the slogan “meaning is use”). There may not be some necessary and sufficient conditions to the concept of modernity (what is probably meant by “analytic viability”) but that hardly means it lacks content. Even “stupid” has some content but its meaning is of course shaped by the context in which it is used. Even an apparently more stable word like “bank” is like this. You are using “modernity” in a certain context; that does not mean the word cannot have different meanings in other contexts. The question is, relative to what is being said by Guha, and relative to the discussion about dynastic rule, can it be used in a substantive way? That is all that matters; one is not seeking an abstract definition that is context-free. 

While I am sure postcolonial theory has contributed worthwhile perspectives on the current situation, I have found that there is such over-concern about someone being classified in one way or another that the theory goes overboard in its attempt to argue against such classifications. 

It is not so great when the contributions make you feel completely stupid.

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  • Vinod
    Posted at 05:38h, 19 June Reply

    Clearly the approach used to study the meaning of modernity in this post is one influnced by the ordinary language philosophy. of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 19:17h, 19 June Reply

      Vinod, Could you elaborate on that a bit. Are there other ways of looking at modernity that would help us in understanding what the phenomenon means in South Asia? We can’t help looking at things through a European lens. Fortunately in art we have something indigenous to fall back on. I saw of an exhibition of paintings of the Sikh Durbar – how European and local artists portrayed the same reality. We don’t really have the same luxury with text especially if we are confined to English texts. Few Indians wrote in English and those that did were quite Westernized in their thinking so, at best, they were reactive the way a lot of nativists are.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 04:28h, 20 June Reply

    SA, I wrote that comment too hastily after reading only the beginning of the article. The rest of the article mentions the Wittgensteinian approach taken and challenges it adequately. My comment had nothing new to offer.

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