Uncertainty In Modern Thought (1918 1939)Webinar Transcript
UNCERTAINTY IN MODERN THOUGHT (1918-1939) Eastview High School – AP European History McKay et al, 8 th ed. – Chapter 28, The Age of Anxiety
Why did doubts emerge concerning the belief in human progress during the 1920s?
Who were the major thinkers and works which influenced the search for meaning in the post World War I society?
Uncertainty in Modern Thought
The effects of World War I on modern thought
Western society began to question values and beliefs that had guided it since the Enlightenment.
Many people rejected the long-accepted beliefs in progress and the power of the rational mind to understand a logical universe and an orderly society.
Paul Valery wrote about the crisis of the cruelly injured mind; to him the war (“storm”) had left a “terrible uncertainty.”
New ideas and discoveries in philosophy, physics, psychology, and literature encouraged this general intellectual crisis.
Modern Philosophy – Nietzsche
The traditional belief in progress and the rational human was attacked by Nietzsche, Bergson, and Sorel before 1914 .
Nietzsche believed that Western civilization was in decline because of Christian humility and an overstress on rational thinking at the expense of emotion and passion ; he believed that a few superior supermen had to become the leaders of the herd of inferior people.
Put forth the idea that “God is dead” – murdered by lackadaisical modern Christians who no longer really believe in him.
Modern Philosophy – Bergson
Henri Bergson added to this the idea that immediate experience and intuition are as important as rational and scientific thinking.
According to Bergson, a religious experience or a mystical poem was often more accessible to human comprehension than a scientific law or mathematical equation.
Modern Philosophy - Sorel
Georges Sorel argued that socialism, led by the elite, would succeed through a great violent strike of all working people.
Sorel characterized Marxian socialism as an inspiring but unprovable religion rather than a rational scientific truth.
Differing Schools of Philosophy
Logical empiricism, as defined by Wittgenstein, claimed that philosophy was nothing more than the logical clarification of thoughts —the study of language; it could not answer the great issues of the ages such as the meaning of life.
Existentialism, first developed in Germany by Heidegger and Jaspers, and then by Sartre and Camus in France, stressed that humans can overcome the meaninglessness of life by individual action .
Existentialism was popular in France after the Second World War because it advocated positive human action at a time of hopelessness.
The Revival of Christianity
The loss of faith in human reason and in continual progress also led to a renewed interest in the Christian view of the world.
Before 1914, Protestant theologians, such as Albert Schweitzer, stressed the human nature of Jesus and turned away from the supernatural aspects of his divinity ; they sought to harmonize religious belief with scientific findings.
“ The only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.” — Albert Schweitzer
Post WWI Christian Revival
Danish religious philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s (1813-1855) rediscovered work helped to revive fundamental Christian belief after World War I
A revitalization of fundamental Christianity took place after WWI .
Kierkegaard was rediscovered ; he had criticized the worldliness of the church and stressed commitment to a remote and majestic God.
Barth and Marcel
Karl Barth stressed the imperfect and sinful nature of man and the need to accept God’s truth through trust, not reason.
Catholic existential theologians, such as Gabriel Marcel, found new hope in religion by emphasizing the need for its hope and piety in a broken world.
The New Physics
By the late nineteenth century, scientific advances and their implications had greatly influenced the beliefs of thinking people.
Prior to the 1920s, science was one of the main supports of Western society’s optimistic and rational worldview.
The challenge to Newtonian physics by scientists such as Planck and Einstein undermined belief in constant natural laws .
Planck’s work with subatomic energy showed that atoms were not the basic building blocks of nature.
Planck demonstrated in 1900 that subatomic energy is emitted in uneven little spurts called “quanta.”
Einstein postulated that time and space are relative, the universe is infinite, and matter and energy are interchangeable .
This link provides a demonstration of his theory: http://youtube.com/watch?v=V7vpw4AH8QQ
The Heroic Age of Physics
The 1920s were the “ heroic age of physics .”
Rutherford split the atom.
Subatomic particles were identified, notably the neutron.
The new physics described a universe that lacked absolute objective reality; Heisenberg claimed that instead of Newton’s rational laws, there are only tendencies and probabilities .
In short, science seemed to have little to do with human experience and human problems .
Prior to Freud, it was assumed that the conscious mind processed experiences in a rational and logical way .
Sigmund Freud & Psychoanalysis
According to Freud, human behavior is basically irrational.
The key to understanding the mind is the irrational unconscious (the id), which is driven by sexual, aggressive, and pleasure-seeking desires.
Behavior is a compromise between the needs of the id and the rationalizing conscious (the ego), which mediates what a person can do, and ingrained moral values (the superego), which tell what a person should do .
Instinctual drives can easily overwhelm the control mechanisms; yet rational thinking and traditional moral values can cripple people with guilt and neuroses .
Many interpreted Freudian thought as an encouragement of an uninhibited sex life.
Twentieth Century Literature
Novelists developed new techniques to express new realities. In the twentieth century, most major writers adopted the limited, often confused viewpoint of a single individual.
The postwar moods of pessimism, relativism, and alienation influenced novelists .
Literature focused on the complexity and irrationality of the human mind.
Writers such as Proust embraced psychological relativity —the attempt to understand oneself by looking at one’s past.
Novelists like Woolf, Faulkner, and Joyce adopted the stream-of-consciousness technique , in which ideas and emotions from different time periods bubble up randomly.
Some literature, such as that of Spengler, Kafka, and Orwell, was anti-utopian —it predicted a future of doom.
Questions for your review
Which thinkers challenged the rationality of thought concerning the human condition?
What is logical empiricism (Wittgenstein) ?
What were Nietzsche’s basic beliefs?
What were Bergson’s basic beliefs?
How did Sorel view Marxian socialism?
What arguments did Sartre stress?
Who were the influential authors of the existentialist movement?
Who was a leader in the Christian revival after WWI?
What was Einstein’s greatest theoretical contribution? How did this challenge Newtonian physics?
What did authors such as Proust, Joyce, & Faulkner write about?
What were Spengler’s main arguments? How would you characterize Spengler?