BF190: Modernity and the Contemporary World
Both BF190: Modernity and the Contemporary World and BF199: Modernity: Critique and Resistance familiarize you with a set of foundational ideas that will help you in your university education, in your career, and in your life as a citizen of our global world.
In particular, BF190 and BF199 are focused on ethical and political questions: How do we relate to each other as human beings? How should we relate to each other as human beings?
BF190 focuses on Enlightenment thought, which grounds many of the things we take for granted in our daily lives, including democratic politics, the scientific method, and capitalist economic relations. BF199 focuses on contemporary problems that challenge Enlightenment ideas, including environmental issues, multiculturalism, and the effects of mass communication.
The ideas presented in BF190 and BF199 are foundational to thinking across the disciplines taught at Laurier Brantford. This gives you a leg up in understanding your coursework and gives you a common language with which to communicate and think with your peers across disciplinary boundaries.
The ideas presented in BF190 and BF199 circulate around the practice of critical thinking, which involves challenging assumptions, asking complicated questions, and being open to new and innovative solutions. This practice is useful across a wide variety of traditional and non-traditional career paths, and allows you to become the kind of flexible thinker that contemporary employers are looking for.
Finally, the ideas presented in BF190 and BF199 give you the tools to understand the assumptions made and positions taken by others in the face of important contemporary problems. In turn, this allows you to develop and express your own assumptions and positions so that you become an empowered, active, and responsible citizen of our global world.
- Read primary source course material.
- Identify and summarize key ideas in the tradition of social and political critique.
- Compare and contrast the ideas of key authors in the tradition of social and political critique.
- Apply key ideas in the tradition of social and political critique to contemporary news media objects.
- Articulate your own position on contemporary news media objects and relate your position to the ideas of key authors in the tradition of social and political critique.
- Practice academic integrity in the correct referencing of sources.
BF190 Key Ideas
Some of the key ideas covered in BF190 include:
Left vs. Right
BF190 presents the political divide between Leftism and Rightism as a troublesome point of contestation: One of the things that the Left and the Right cannot agree on is what the difference is between the Left and the Right! However, each of the thinkers in the BF190 tends to address one or both of two main worries, which can be seen to speak to these political orientations:
- The worry that people with political power will use it to abuse those without political power; and
- The worry that people will abuse each other unless someone with political power is able to stop them.
Students are encouraged to make their own decisions around which of these worries they identify with and under what circumstances, while acknowledging that neither worry can simply be dismissed.
Kant and Hobbes help set up the Left/Right distinction at the beginning of the course by expressing each of these worries in a relatively direct way.
Democracy vs. Tyranny
One of the chief questions running through the texts presented in BF190 is whether political power should be centralized and hierarchical or shared and distributed equally. Multiple thinkers argue for each of these alternatives using different modes of reasoning. Ultimately the course aims to complicate this question by exposing students to the ideas that democracy may have its own tyrannical tendencies, and that human beings may have a powerful desire for tyrannical rule, even when they claim to prefer democracy.
Montesquieu defines multiple forms of power distribution, while arguing for democracy equality and against despotic centralization. Burke provides the most direct argument against democracy. Mill and Tocqueville develop a set of ideas for thinking through how and why democracy itself can become tyrannical.
Liberalism vs. Conservatism
The language of liberalism vs. conservatism continues to shape our contemporary democratic debates, and BF190 exposes students to some of the foundational texts to each of these political orientations. In addition to giving students a working definition of these terms, the course exposes students to some complexities, including the difference between economic liberalism and cultural liberalism, and the notion that these words mean something very different in our contemporary political landscape than they meant when they were first adopted.
Locke provides an argument for economic liberalism, while Mill does the same for cultural liberalism. Burke provides an argument for classical conservatism.
Capitalism vs. Communism
One of the most controversial legacies of the Enlightenment is the capitalist economic system, which continues to have an enormous impact on our contemporary world. BF190 exposes students to a series of Enlightenment ideas that are foundational to capitalism, including that notion that individuals should be universally guaranteed a right to private property, and that human beings should be understood as rationally self-interested decision-makers. The course concludes by introducing students to one of the chief alternatives to capitalism to emerge during the modern era: Marx’s notion of communism.
Hobbes provides a basis for understanding human beings as rationally self-interested decision-makers. Locke provides a defense of private property, while Rousseau attacks it. Marx provides an alternative to capitalism in the form of communism.
Racism and Sexism
While the European cultures that gave birth to Enlightenment thought routinely oppressed, excluded, colonized and even exterminated various groups on the basis of gender and race (along with sexual orientation, religion, and other kinds of difference), there are tendencies within Enlightenment thought that challenge and undermine these practices. BF190 exposes students to some of the rare moments in which these internal contradictions became palpable and Enlightenment concepts were turned against the patriarchal and white supremacist cultures that conceived them.
Wollstonecraft argues that if the rational critical thinking championed by Enlightenment thought is a universal right, then it must also apply to women. L’Ouverture argues that the black people of Haiti deserve to be treated as free and equal members of the French society that had kidnapped and enslaved them.
Thinkers covered in BF190 include:
- The Prince. Dedication, ch. 7-8, 12-18.
Arguably the first modern thinker, Machiavelli is a "realist" and a consequentialist (“the ends justify the means”) who draws examples from history and experience (things as they are) rather than ideology (things as they are imagined) in order to show that people are self interested power seekers.
He encourages his readers to question pre-modern values as well as accept the worst about human nature. Machiavelli does not believe legitimate rule is hereditary. Rather, he believes that if anyone wants to be part of the elite they have to be willing to use violence, to be selfish and power seeking, and be willing not to be good. These are the traits of a successful Prince.
- What is Enlightenment?
In this piece Kant responds to a call from the King’s minster to define “Enlightenment,” the philosophical tradition associated with modernity. He defines it as a process of questioning received assumptions and thinking for oneself, which he positions more or less directly against authoritarian power.
While Kant justifies this revolutionary-sounding position through a reference to divine right, he is careful not to offend prevailing authorities. He offers the compromise that one should perform one’s duty to society without question, but that a separate space should be reserved within which citizens can freely and publically critique whatever they choose.
- Leviathan. ch. xiii – xvi.
Beginning from a notion of human nature as rationally self-interested, Hobbes famously deduces the pre-civilized state of nature as a war of all against all. He argues that the only motivation that can sustain peaceful co-existence is the fear of punishment, and therefore asserts that the absolute power of a sovereign is necessary to sustain civilization.
Hobbes’ arguments justify authoritarian power and even explicitly allow the sovereign to limit his or her subjects’ critical thinking. However, he remains a modern thinker insofar as he uses rational deduction to support his claims instead of references to tradition. For this reason he is ultimately disowned by his aristocratic royalist friends.
- Second Treatise of Government. ch. 5, 6.
- A Letter Concerning Toleration.
Considered the father of liberalism, Locke believes government is based on the consent of the governed. He is interested in making government responsible, and is thus against the royal absolutism and religious intolerance typical of traditional authority.
Locke is most often discussed in relation to his arguments in favour of private property. For Locke, property is the nexus through which all our other rights are exercised. Without it, people do not have the means to live and without these means there is no individual liberty.
- Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. pp. 5, 13, 39-47, 53-57, 61, 81, 87-106, 110-119, 122-126.
Beginning from a notion that humans are naturally affectionate towards each other, Rousseau deduces the pre-civilized state of nature as an idyllic state of noble savagery. He argues that it is only with “civilized” inventions such as surplus production and private property that inequalities emerge, which ultimately lead to self-interested competition and misery.
Again, while Rousseau can be read as calling for a return to pre-modern social forms, he nonetheless uses the modern technique of rational deduction to arrive at his conclusions. He is very far from supporting traditional claims to authority which strike him as pure ideological manipulation.
Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu
- The Spirit of the Laws. ch. i, ii, iii, viii.
Montesquieu sets out to provide a classificatory system that describes the possible forms of government that might structure a society. Interestingly, these forms fall along a spectrum that mimics the tension in modern thought, from democracy which privileges the right of every individual to his or her own opinion, to despotism which privileges the ruler’s right to govern the masses according to rational principles.
However, Montesquieu reveals his own bias when he condemns despotism as monstrous and irrational, and argues that it is the form of government closest to social collapse. He thus unintentionally reveals the impossibility of political neutrality: Even when one claims to be neutral, one has always already chosen a side.
- Reflections on the Revolution in France. pp. 1-24, 50-74.
Considered a classical conservative thinker, Burke argues in favour of the authority of tradition, positive prejudice, private property, and (as a Patriot) the British constitution. He argues that rights are only ever granted by an existing social or political structure, and that the notion of universal natural rights (such as the universal right to critical thinking) should therefore be dismissed.
However, Burke does not believe in the divine right that grounded traditional monarchical authority. Moreover, his criticisms of the French revolution are based in the very modern fear that the abstract universal “rights of man” could be used to justify tyranny and government oppression.
- A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. ch. iv, ix.
Considered one of the founders of feminism, Wollstonecraft echoes Kant’s argument for the universal human capacity and right to think critically, but notes that this capacity and right have not been attributed or granted to women. Wollstonecraft demonstrates that a woman can think critically at least as well as any man and does not shy away from the difficult notion that oppressed people may in some cases take pleasure in their oppression.
- The Haitian revolution: Toussaint L'Ouverture. Introduction by Jean-Bertrand Aristide – Introduction (p. vii-xxii), Letters 3, 9, 13, 20.
An ex-slave and primary leader of the world’s only successful slave revolution, L’Ouverture’s letters show a clear dedication to the modern enlightenment principles that his enemies profess to follow. L’Ouverture fights for the equality and liberty of black people within the framework of modern French democratic society.
John Stuart Mill
- On Liberty. ch. 1, 3.
Mill argues that the freedom of the individual to think critically and pursue his or her own aims is a social good insofar as it serves an evolutionary or adaptive function. By experimenting with different social forms and values, society is able to transform itself to meet new contexts and challenges. However, Mill uncovers a host of problems in attempting to define the limits of this freedom. Principles intended to prevent one individual from harming another quickly seem to confine freedom to an infinitesimally small sphere.
Mill also introduces the problem of the tyranny of the majority: the tendency of even a perfectly functioning representative democracy to censure individual experimentation and idiosyncrasy. Democracy may not be enough to preserve liberty.
Alexis de Toqueville
- Democracy in America. vol. 1, sec. 2, pt. i - v, vol. 2, sec. 4, pt. vi.
Tocqueville argues that equality of conditions (a fair share of resources and rights) is not enough to guarantee political freedom (the right to participate in political decision making), and that there is a dangerous tendency in modern representative democracies to favour the former over the latter.
Tocquevile worries that this tendency will lead modern democracies towards a new kind of despotism. Unlike traditional despotism which is cruel and capricious, ruling through the threat of punishment, the new democratic despotism will be rational and mild, ruling through the promise of material pleasures. Tocqueville urges us to keep alive small local democratic institutions as a ward against the tyranny of well-meaning experts and bureaucrats.
- Communist Manifesto. pt. 1-2.
Marx champions the modern ideals of liberty and equality by arguing that they are ultimately incompatible with the modern social relations of capitalism. He believes that through an inevitable revolutionary uprising of the industrial working class, Communism will be established, which will eliminate class differences and put all mankind on an equal social and political footing.
Nonetheless, Marx does not dismiss the positive effects of the capitalist era. It not only allows for immense productivity, but undermines traditional prejudices based on identity by reducing power to an abstract, transferable medium. All that remains is to complete the process by eliminating the class difference between the wealthy and the poor.