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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751


VORSTER, Nico. The Western human being's "loss of meaning". Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2013, vol.53, n.1, pp.30-44. ISSN 2224-7912.

Several authoritative studies have indicated that Western people are currently experiencing a loss of meaning. This article states that this collective sense of loss of meaning is partly due to the fragmentation of Western rationality. It attempts to identify historical-philosophical factors that might have contributed to Western society's sense of the loss of meaning. Several shifts in Western history are identified and their contribution to the ultimate fragmentation of Western rationality is discussed. The shifts identified are the rise of voluntarism and nominalism, the effects of the Rennaisance and Reformation on Western society, the development of an autonomous anthropology, the rise of an immanent political and economical order, the surge in materialist ideologies in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, and the epistemological shift from modernism to postmodernism. The shift from realism to voluntarism and nominalism led to a greater separation between the transcendent and immanent realms and also a pursuit of instrumental rationality, while the Reformation and Renaissance brought about an emphasis on will, freedom and the reconstruction of society. The Enlightenment created an autonomous anthropology, that coincided with the construction of a purely immanent frame of reference that can function independently of God, while the transcendent becomes a domain outside the boundaries of human reason. Ethics are now founded in the human will, religion is purified from myths and supernatural concepts and Christian humanism is steadily being replaced by what Charles Taylor calls "exclusive humanism". The autonomous anthropology developed by Enlightenment thinkers would necessarily lead to the rise of an immanent political and social order. The traditional theocratic political order that was embedded in a higher sacral order is now replaced by an immanent social order founded on rights and horizontal humanism; a new kind of individualism originates that emphasises self-interest and the exchange of goods for mutual benefit; progress becomes a central societal ideal and greater differentiation takes place because a variety of rationalities in the public sphere are acknowledged that compete with one another. In the greater differentiation, individualism and pluralism that emanate from the construction of a new political and economic order we find the origins of the later fragmentation of Western reason, because all of of these social phenomena create fluid identities. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries were characterised by the rise of materialist ideologies such as Marxism, Communism, Social Darwinism and Capitalism. All of these ideologies are undergirded by an underlying will to power. The dangerous downside of Marxism, Communism and Social Darwinism manifested itself in the twentieth century in bloody revolutions, ethnic cleansings, genocide, two World Wars and a Cold War. Capitalism enhanced global inequality and contributed directly to the destruction of natural resources. The last big shift can be described as epistemological in nature and is constituted by the rise of postmodernism after the Second World War. Postmodernism is characterised by fragmented rationality, to such a degree that comprehensive systems of truth that provide all-encompassing explanations for reality have totally disintegrated. Various factors have contributed to this fragmentation such as the horrific results of global conflicts in the twentieth century, the nature of modernism itself, processes of pluralism and globalisation and developments within the natural sciences. The "death" of hegemonic notions of truth and the fragmentation of rationality inevitably cause instability and a sense of meaninglessness. The article concludes that Western people's collective sense of loss of meaning is systemic in nature and cannot merely be ascribed to psychological attributes or temporary social factors. This "systemic" problem needs to be addressed by the social sciences through the development of a new kind of rationality that averts disintegration.

Keywords : meaning; Western; realism; Reformation; Renaissance; Enlightenment; modernism; materialism; postmodernism; fragmentation; truth.

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