It is truly gratifying to be part of such a stimulating conversation. I have a number of questions that spring to mind from points made in its course or which come out of works that the participants have previously published. One that Jason Kuznicki poses and Jack Goldstone responds to is that of the dark side of modernity. This has been analyzed and theorized by a number of thinkers, notably Foucault, who he mentions. One could also refer to people such as Lewis Mumford, Christopher Lasch, Jacques Ellul, or Neil Postman. The modern world has brought huge benefits and betterment of conditions to literally billions of people, compared to what has gone before but it has also seen domination and oppression on a scale never seen before. One argument is to see this as the triumph of bad ideas, another is to say that many of the features of modernity, such as the new technologies that innovation has created, are morally neutral and give greater power to human beings to use for good or ill.
There is however a more troubling question, which Kuznicki alludes to and which the thinkers listed all explored in various ways. Is the dark side of modernity an essential and necessary concomitant of its benevolent face? In particular, does the rationalism of the modern world and the sweeping away of traditional practices and institutions, whether by spontaneous forces no longer checked or by deliberate action by rulers (even through such mundane and apparently harmless actions as the drawing up of cadastral maps) mean that the dark coercive side of the modern is in some sense inescapable?
Kuznicki also explores an aspect of something Jack Goldstone emphasised very strongly, which is the intellectual rift between the modern world and its antecedents. The aspect is the way in which modern political and intellectual discourse departs significantly and even radically from that of the Christian or classical past. The example he gives is that of equality and this is indeed one of the main differences. We can truly say that we are all egalitarians now in a very real sense. The idea of degree and hierarchy, which was so centrally important in the past, is now an alien one and almost nobody is now going to make a frank and seriously argued case for the importance of social hierarchy and distinction on principled grounds, or to criticise the idea of legal equality. A reading of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida would show how alien and dangerous and above all unnatural, such notions seemed at that time.
Another instance, which Anthony Pagden pointed to, is secularism and the possibility of a secular and non-transcendent way of thinking about the world. As I said I personally support the idea put forward by Lucien Febvre that it was nearly impossible for someone who was educated to be an unbeliever because to adopt a secular view meant to throw over all knowledge and so live in a world that no longer made sense. (The other side of this was that unbelief was paradoxically easier for the uneducated). Yet another feature of this division is the steady growth of both the idea and reality of the private and the increasing privileging of the private over the public. This is seen both in everyday life and in the movement into the private of matters such as religious belief and observance and sexual conduct and familial order, both once seen as quintessentially public matters. Apart from the issue of how to evaluate this, the big question of course is that of how and why such a revolution in attitudes and political order happened. It won’t do to see it simply as inevitable or predetermined, I would argue.
Another obvious question that arises from the big topic of modernity and its origins is that of how this fits in with the story or relations between Europe and the rest of the world since at least the sixteenth century, given the way modernity (whatever dates one gives it) clearly first appears in Europe. This is precisely the area where Anthony Pagden is the great authority. The interesting question, which he has explored, is that of how the world as a whole and their relationship to the rest of it was conceived of by Europeans, and in particular how different groups of Europeans came up with different ways of thinking about this. One question is that of how to compare Europeans’ thinking in this area to that of other civilisations, particularly the Chinese and Islamic. Another is the other side of the story, the interplay and transmission of ideas from one part of the world to another. There is a great book to be written for example about the way the Jesuit order came both to conceive of the world in a novel way and to transmit various ideas back into Europe from other parts of the world, above all from China.
The final question that comes to my mind is that of technology and the kind of engineering civilisation that Jack Goldstone describes and identifies. (One question is that of the relation between this and the dark side of modernity in both practical and intellectual terms. The predilection of engineers for totalitarian political ideologies in the twentieth century is an interesting but also alarming subject). Too many historians (I obviously exclude him from this) seem to see technology and engineering as an exogenous force in social history, a literal deus ex machina. The difficult and interesting problem now is that of how to explain not so much the rapidity and constancy of technological innovation in the modern world as of their slowness and intermittent quality in most of human history. What exactly were the forces that did this and how did they work? Particularly interesting are cases such as China, where there is rapid and extensive innovation at some times, most notably under the Song and yet other periods where this stops or even goes into reverse. The sudden decline of technological innovation there after the later fourteenth century is one that has taxed a generation of sinologists and there is still no truly satisfactory explanation I would say.