After Metamodern Progenitors and Progeny

This article is the final piece of a symposium on Storm’s book Metamodernism: The Future of Theory (University of Chicago Press, 2021), hosted in the Winter 2022 editin of Ad Fontes. Dr. Storm is responding to prior articles from Joseph Minich, Derrick Peterson, and D.C. Schindler, linked below.

I want to begin by thanking Onsi Kamel for organizing this and the three respondents for taking the time to read and react to my monograph. Each contributor has been so thoughtful and generous in their characterizations of my project that I have very little to debate. I’m glad that Joseph Minich finds the notion of process social kinds inspiring. I agree with Derrick Peterson about the limitations of the notion of “worldview” and I learned quite a bit from reading his elaborations on the subject. Finally, I especially appreciate the suggestions and supportive remarks of a scholar of D.C. Schindler’s stature. I feel fortunate to have such sympathetic and attentive reviewers.

For the sake of discussion, however, I want to respond to two different issues this forum brings up: first, about the project’s relationship to the past (or perhaps originality) and second, about the future. Playfully put, I want to explore the tension between the progenitors and progeny of a philosophical work. By doing so I hope to touch upon some more fundamental theoretical issues about the nature of knowledge and influence.

First, both Minich and Schindler reference what they see as premodern progenitors of the project. While Minich suggests that “our author’s ideas seem to have pre-modern precedent,” he nonetheless recognizes that “any such return is still a fresh act of creation.” Schindler expresses a greater concern about “in what sense the approach to theory Storm sketches out in this book is in fact new and revolutionary.” I take these to be both questions about the role of novelty in theory formation. As someone who has done a good deal of research tracing out the origins and evolution of various theoretical formulations (e.g., “the myth of disenchantment”), far be it from me to reject attempts at historicization.

While it isn’t exactly what Minich and Schindler are doing, I am broadly suspicious of the search for progenitors as an intellectual move. To explain, there is a big difference between tracing the formation of a particular philosophical theme and attempting to proclaim a particular individual to be the originator of a particular grand episteme or artistic movement. In the latter case, it is de rigueur in certain circles to talk about anticipations of trends before they were cool. I do not just mean the obligatory references to MC5 and The Stooges when talking about influences on early punk rock or the discussion of the French Synthwave revival before The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” popularized the genre, but the desire to find the constellation of characteristics that define a current movement in the form of a distant progenitor. This can mean, for punk, the discovery of older largely unknown bands like Detroit’s Death or Peru’s Los Saicos or the pure fabrication of groups like Gekirin 逆鱗, whom director Nakamura Yoshihiro portrays as an early Japanese progenitor to Western punk. The scholarly equivalent of this is the celebration of Alexander von Humboldt as the first environmentalist or the identification of Nietzsche or even Heraclitus as pioneers of the postmodern. [1]

If anything, these moves are widespread today because of both a competition over primacy and an emphasis on genealogy. On the one hand, scholars and mainstream pundits alike confer immense symbolic capital on those they identify as first. For instance, there are intense conflicts over whether Aristotle, Anaximander, Ibn Al-Haytham, or Roger Bacon was “the first scientist,” even though this would seem impossible to adjudicate insofar as they rest in competing, typically unstated definitions of “scientist” (especially as the term itself was an anachronism to all four men) and because the sociological boundaries between scientist and non-scientist in the periods in question are virtually impossible to articulate clearly. Hence, the stakes of this declaration of primacy seem to be largely symbolic and rooted primarily in either scholarly self-promotion or more generously, because the scholar in question feels an especial affinity to the putative progenitor and wants to see their discipline embody or (continue to) embody something of the progenitor’s ethos, at least as they interpret them. On the other hand, in many places Foucauldian genealogy has morphed into genetic fallacy, functioning as a kind of covert essentialism—the faults of an originator discredit a current movement by association. For instance, the rediscovery that John James Audubon was a racist slaveowner has caused various people to question whether birdwatching is inherently racist, even though there was a long history of birdwatching outside of North America, including influential African birders.[2]

Against both of these accounts, I argue in Metamodernism that social kinds typically have gray areas and fuzzy boundaries. Also, people frequently talk past each other by having different property-clusters in mind for a given term. So, the identity of the first “scientist” will depend on the purposes of a particular project and, hopefully, clearly stated assumptions about the particular property-cluster and anchoring processes being described. Moreover, as I argued in Metamodernism, social kinds do not automatically inherit properties from their origins, but it is worth looking at particular instances and asking historically-relevant questions that can then be investigated empirically.

In summary, novelty is a task-dependent judgement. Indeed, if you are sufficiently vague about your criteria for membership, you can practically always make the case for an arbitrarily defined progenitor of a given social kind (e.g., Jonah Lehrer, Proust Was a Neuroscientist). Given that Metamodernism, at least as I use the term, is an interlocking set of complex theoretical interventions, identifying the first metamodernista is likely to either prove futile or at best highly selective.

The more fundamental question this brings up, however, is not one about premodern precedents, but about the very notion of originality. Academic reviews frequently suggest an opposition between “originality” or “discovery” and “synthesis” or “influence.” The first is typically valorized while the latter is regularly disparaged. But I think this whole opposition is rooted in a mistaken notion of the autonomy of an individual scholar. It rests on the erroneous “great man” account of history, which obscures the complex social relations that make even individual progress possible. Many of the thinkers who have been mostly lauded for their originality (e.g., Descartes, Max Weber) were just particularly remiss in their citational practices, and subsequent scholars have done lots of work excavating their intellectual context and manifold influences. This should not be a surprise. To paraphrase, John Donne, no one is an island. Despite the myth of the isolated ego, as I have argued, knowledge is a social kind, relative to a particular community of inquirers. For instance, Ian Hacking observed about the Scientific Revolution that “it is the entire consilience of ideas, the seamless hanging together, that tells us that something wholly new is underfoot. Sometimes one can find almost the same sentence, in an earlier epoch, as one that is common in a later way of thinking: a precursor indeed!”[3]

Because I believe intellectual progress is a collective endeavor, I’ve made it a conscious program to read (and cite) widely. This makes it easier, rather than harder, to register some of my many influences (although, perhaps ironically, in the reviews of the book I’ve seen thus far, different reviewers tend to assimilate my project to very different progenitors). Against the conventional view, I think that originality is not in opposition to influence. The least original works are typically those which have the narrowest range of influences, for they are limited by less material to synthesize and draw on (e.g., if scholars model their work exclusively on Jacques Derrida, their work will read as at best a derivative imitation of his). Hence, my reading program. So I’m especially delighted when other scholars note some of my intellectual influences and elective affinities, and demonstrate wide reading proclivities of their own.

Having said that all of that, I’m inclined to push back against most of Schindler’s characterizations of specific forebearers. I agree that there have been many critiques of modernity that are not postmodern (for some of these, see my previous book), although not all are equally relevant to my current project and most do so in fundamentally different terms.[4] Moreover, while I’m far from the first philosopher to grapple with the “unity of identity and difference” (to give the Hegelian formulation), analogy—in the contemporary sense of the term—is at best a limited source of potential generalizations because we don’t necessarily know which features are shared by the blended domains (e.g., the analogy between blood flowing through the veins and water flowing through a pipe is suggestive of flow dynamics, but misleading insofar as veins, unlike pipes, require expansion and contraction to function). But I imagine by “traditional notion of analogy,” Schindler is referring to the medieval theological account of analogical reasoning and predication provided by Boethius and others. If so, my work couldn’t be more different from the traditional fourfold “equivocation by design” (similitudo, proportion, ab uno, and ab unum) that rest in both a dissimilar epistemology and a different ontology of being than the one I sketch in chapter one (with necessarily divergent notions of substance and accident, etcetera).[5] Moreover, in that chapter, I argue that there are some features of the world that depend on mind, but that they depend on mind in different ways (which I attempt to provisionally classify). I also suggest that “real” is a comparative notion which takes an unspoken contrast class. But this is a far cry from the Christian Neo-Platonism that Schindler sees as a forebearer. Similarly, while I share Augustine’s emphasis on humble knowledge, as I understand his epistemology, it starts with a complicated rejection of skepticism in favor of the certainty of particular forms of self-referential knowledge and formal mathematical structures. In contrast, I reject the possibility of certain knowledge altogether and suggest we need to deepen skepticism and turn it inside out.[6] So not very similar. There may be some similarities between my process ontology and twentieth century Thomistic metaphysics, but since I don’t know that genre at all that would be new to me (and if so, thanks for the suggestion—I look forward to reading into it).   

 All that said, Schindler is quite right that my promotion of virtue ethics and eudaimonia is more or less a revival project. It shares with this journal a call of ad fontes in its attempt to recover classical sources of ethical models, and in so doing it was in part inspired by the Catholic tradition that he references. I would be dissembling if I did not admit the vast influence of the work of the Catholic political theorist Alasdair MacIntyre in particular on my ethical views. To be sure, I modify this particular ethical project by way of both non-European traditions and cautions drawn from critical theory. But insofar as the ethical chapter is the beating heart of my project, I’m happy to take the Catholic (and classical Protestant) traditions as allies and work together to produce a world more conducive to virtue and flourishing.

In summary, I’m generally suspicious of the fetishization of founders and I think of originality in terms of a multiplicity rather than a unity of influences. So if Minich and Schindler’s interests are interpreted not primarily as genealogical concerns or anticipatory intellectual developments but as attempts to find allies and affinities wherever possible; then in that case, I fully support expanding what we tend to treat as separate discourses beyond their current bounds and putting them together in generative ways. 

To conclude, I want to briefly gesture at Minich’s question about what comes after Metamodernism. I fully agree that “a lot of people think they are after human flourishing when they aren’t”; that there is a real question about “how academic communities [could] help ‘form persons’ who take on this pilgrimage”; and that “in many respects, the current crisis is ultimately one of motivation.”

It is understandable that, faced with global pandemic, anthropogenic climate change, economic turbulence, and political polarization, many people seem to have lost their capacity to imagine better futures. We as a society have no problem picturing the end of the world—dystopias and future apocalypses are abundant in contemporary films, novels, and even political speeches—but we seem to have given up on imagining eutopias. This is a problem because, as numerous political theorists have observed, it is hard to organize meaningful change around cynicism or nihilism. Although there are many things in the past we are in danger of losing, we cannot merely go retreat to some lost (illusory) golden age. We will never solve the intertwined catastrophes of the present moment if we do not exercise our capacity to imagine better futures. So it seems to me that, in these apparently dystopian times, it is even more important to chart constructive visions.

It is clear that the American academy, as it now stands, is unsuitable to the task. It has largely abandoned the idea of producing moral transformation and human flourishing in favor of misleading gestures at the job market, vague notions of cultural progress, and/or anemic accounts of “critical thinking.” We cannot solve the crisis merely at the level of ideas. We must confront head-on adjunctification, inequality, and hyperspecialization. We must work toward decolonization, inclusion, and the revitalization of values. We must take philosophy to the streets and even to the stars. But none of these is enough. The educational establishment isn’t the only crumbling institution. The whole system needs a radical reformation.

Metamodernism has been an attempt to trigger such on at least the terrain of philosophy. In that respect, the book was itself conceived as a kind of philosophical therapeutics that leads through the disintegration of concepts and deconstructive vigilance to a reconstructive capability directed at multi-species flourishing.

But I’ll own that it embodies an inherent tension between processual knowledge and future guidance. The process social ontology I describe implies not only humility toward knowledge but a lack of ethical certainty in the face of changing moral norms. As I argue, the only knowledge that endures indefinitely is the recognition that knowledge itself is provisional and constantly changing. Similarly, ethics needs to be grounded not in a particular static ideal, but rather in the recognition of our own flaws, finitude, limitedness, or one might even venture fallenness. Faced with the impossibility of perfection, the only kind of flourishing that will weather the ages is the ability to change, to become. That is to say, flourishing not as product but process. Yet, even so, we must in our own way struggle for something more, we must keep our eyes on the prize or perhaps aspire toward (in Minich’s paraphrases of Levinas) an “exemplar [of] the sort that never arrives.”

All that is to say, the emulation of moral paragons is itself valuable, but if we are going to transform our collective lives, we need not followers so much as heroes. That is to say we need diverse spiritual progeny who, embracing humble knowledge despite a mutual recognition of limitedness, are willing to struggle together to build a better world.

Jason Ānanda Josephson Storm is Professor of Religion and Chair of Science & Technology Studies at Williams College. He received his Ph.D. from Stanford University, his MTS from Harvard University, and has held visiting positions at Princeton University, École Française d’Extrême-Orient, and Universität Leipzig in Germany. Storm is the author of award-winning The Invention of Religion in Japan (2012), The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity and the Birth of the Human Sciences (2017), as well as Metamodernism: The Future of Theory (2021), all published by University of Chicago Press.


1 For examples, see Nicolaas Rupke, “Humboldt and Metabiography.” German Life and Letters 74, no. 3 (2021): 416-438; Joanne Waugh, “Heraclitus: The Postmodern Presocratic?” The Monist 74, no. 4 (1991): 605-623; and Cornel West, “Nietzsche’s Prefiguration of Postmodern American Philosophy.” Boundary 2 9/10 (1981): 241-269.
2 Nancy Joy Jacobs, Birders of Africa: History of a Network (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), although to be fair it is also about how the colonial encounter rendered those African birders invisible.
3 Ian Hacking, The Emergence of Probability (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
4 Jason Ānanda Josephson Storm, The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity and the Birth of the Human Sciences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017).
5 Domenic D’Ettore, Analogy after Aquinas (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2018), 3-9.
6 Christopher Kirwan, Augustine (New York: Routledge, 1989), 15-34.


Related Articles

Join our Community
Subscribe to receive access to our members-only articles as well as 4 annual print publications.
Share This