Blog Post

The historical problem of fundamentalism

José María asked: Do "fundamentalism" and "moderation" take on the same "connotations" (to use your word) when the "doctrinaire faithful" are seen as existing within a so-called "pre-political" realm (they are thus gathered as an "ecclesia" proper) as they do when the "state" makes its appearance as "the" overarching and all-encompassing form of community?

This is perhaps the key historical question the book faces, although I'm not sure how much detail I will ultimately go into given the book's intentionally popular nature. The short answer is "no." I cannot claim that these terms as I have stipulated them in the context of the modern debate would have the same currency in a pre-modern setting. One problem has to do with the concept of fundamentalism itself. As I point out in another of these posts, tightly-defined the term refers to a modern, even twentieth-century form of religious identification. Karen Armstrong has taken the point even further and argued that not just the concept, but the phenomenon itself can only be understood within the context of modernity. According to her view modernity represents the ascendancy of logos over mythos; where western and other cultures had traditionally valued both forms of knowledge, the creative, metaphoric, all-encompassing weltanschauung of mythos and the pragmatic, problem-oriented, representational thinking of logos, modernity and the success of the scientific revolution led to an almost total suppression of mythos from the realm of "serious" intellectual endeavor. Rather than valued as another realm and way of articulating beliefs, mythos came to signify a childlike and obsolete attempt to explain the world, an endeavor now pursued to far greater effect by the scientific method. It is only within this world-view, according to Armstrong, that religious fundamentalism can arise, for it is nothing other than the tendency to treat the world of mythos with the tools of logos, a kind of culture-wide category mistake. While I find this argument strong and in general accept her distinction as an important one, the history I tell in the book allows that the image of knowledge of the world-as-code has been an option in many cultures and may times, and is not limited to the modern west. So, while this image of knowledge was particular apt for scientific modernity, and certainly the fundamentalist backlash is fed by its deployment, it is also present in pre-modern forms of belief. That said, modernity's privileging of logos over mythos, in Armstrong's terminology, has paved the road for fundamentalism in another, very specific way: it has weakened religious traditions of the most effective critical weapon they have against the fundamentalist impulse, namely, the apophatic tradition that I identify as being central to moderate religious faith.

William Egginton's picture

William Egginton is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at the Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches on Spanish and Latin American literature, literary theory, and the relation between literature and philosophy. He is the author of How the World Became a Stage (2003), Perversity and Ethics (2006), A Wrinkle in History (2007), The Philosopher's Desire (2007), The Theater of Truth (2010), and In Defense of Religious Moderation (2011). He is also co-editor with Mike Sandbothe of The Pragmatic Turn in Philosophy (2004), translator of Lisa Block de Behar's Borges, the Passion of an Endless Quotation (2003, 2nd edition 2014), and co-editor with David E. Johnson of Thinking With Borges (2009). His most recent book is The Man Who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes Ushered In the Modern World (2016).