Intellectual History in Brief

Over the course of human history, two great transitions in intellectual thought have happened. The first “happened” approximately two hundred years ago. The second is still ongoing. I’ll call the first “modernism” and the second “constructivism”.

What is meaning?

Any fact, thought, idea, sentence, concept can mean a whole lot of things to people. A thought can be true or false, honest or dishonest, misleading or deeply true, foolish or wise, beautiful or ugly, good or bad, valuable or valueless, obligatory or merely allowed, necessary or possible, mysterious or plain. All of these meanings are deeply human aspects of the world; as a whole I call these things meanings.

We can trace human intellectual history, and an individual person’s intellectual history, by looking at how that person, or how humanity as a whole, looks at meanings in the abstract. Of course, each meaning, and each application of that meaning, stands alone, but there are remarkable similarities to how one person, culture, or field looks at meaning, so it’s worthwhile looking at them as a whole.

Over the course of human history, there have been two revolutions in what we think meaning is. One, the “modernist revolution” started four hundred years ago and came to its conclusion a bit more than a hundred years ago. The second, which I’ll call the “constructivist revolution” is just beginning, or maybe is just in our future. (Large-scale intellectual movements like this, which really are abstractions of many individual people’s intellectual development in many different topics, have hazy and ill-defined boundaries.) Tracing these changes informs your understanding of history, and allows you to grow personally.

Why change meaning?

Adults today must understand the modernist revolution if they hope to make sense of their lives and deal with the conflicts that adults today face. Adults today must understand the constructivist revolution to get a grip on the most complex conflicts in the world today. Since constructivism is on-going, it doesn’t yet offer solid answers and solutions, but its critique of modernism nonetheless can alert you to when you’re going to make predictable mistakes.

In a moment, I’m going to describe these revolutions. This is a complex undertaking, so I’ll do it in parts. First, I’ll describe traditionalism, the thing that came before modernism. Then I’ll discuss problems with traditionalism, which you might call post-traditionalism. I’ll describe modernism as a way to resolve these problems, and talk about some instances of modernism. Then I’ll talk about problems with modernism, which is called post-modernism. I’ll then offer some scraps of understanding of constructivism.

Before I go through that, I want to offer some observations about intellectual revolutions, generalizing over the two examples I have. Both modernism and constructivism arose as a way of solving problems with their predecessor. These problems can be best understood as a type of conflict that arises that cannot be resolved. Both revolutions started with a period of criticizing their predecessor, and then into a maturing understanding of the solution.

Over the last century, humanity has passed through a phase of critiquing modernism. Yet we do not know what the solution to those problems will be. “Constructivism” as I describe it is a dream, not yet a way of forming meanings. But identifying the central problems with modernism makes it easier to think about solutions. The world is full of problems, and we need constructivist thought to solve them.

Meanings in the world

A woman loves the opera, yet doesn’t have the income that would let her regularly go to see the Metropolitan Opera, the nearest opera to her and also the one of the best in the world. She finds, on the Met Opera’s website, that it has a student program; she would have to present a student ID, and would receive very cheap tickets. So she goes to a nearby college library and finds a lost student ID. She takes that to the Opera, receives tickets to watch the opera with her “daughter”, and forever after is able to enjoy opera.

Is she dishonest? Clever? Mean? Immoral? Creative? A self-starter?

Intellectual revolutions aren’t about changing your answer. They’re about changing what qualifies as an answer, though these steps often also change the answer as a byproduct.


Traditionalism treats meanings as fixed parts of the world. The woman simply is dishonest, or clever, or whatever she may be, just as the sky is a blue sphere surrounding the world and rain is the god of the oceans crying.

Traditionalism treats meanings as fixed, self-evident, and inherent in the world. You can’t ask “what would make the woman’s actions honest” just as you can’t ask what would make the sky not a blue sphere surrounding the world or, to give a more modern analogy, what would make the world not made of atoms.

This mode of meaning hasn’t existed in the Western world for centuries, so it might be unintuitive to readers. But anthropologists regularly find it around the world. For example, Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, relates the experiences of a scientist who asked African tribes about this story of two siblings:

John and Mary are a brother in sister. They’ve been close since childhood, often playing together, participating in the same games, and sharing friends. One day when both are 25, they are on a hiking trip together, living alone in a small cabin for a few days. One evening they have sex. Is what John and Mary did moral?

Both Westerners and Africans are split on whether John and Mary did ill. But it’s not the answer that’s important. A Westerner may offer an answer like, “Mary may have a child as a result of them having sex, and this child would have genetic abnormalities”; African tribespeople don’t offer an explanation. They simply say, no, this was not moral.

And the differences aren’t simply about propensity to explain. A Westerner who offers the above explanation could be told that John has had, for unrelated reasons, a vasectomy, rendering children impossible. That same Westerner may add that other people might find out and shun John or Mary, or that their relationship as siblings may be hurt, and the questioner might allay each of these fears, too (down to, John receives a vision from God forgiving him this action). Eventually, many Westerners change their minds.

African tribespeople do not behave like this. Mary and John did something immoral, they say. Their immorality doesn’t stem from children, harm to their relationship, or religious rebuke. The immorality stands alone. It simply is. If forced to, tribespeople will produce explanations, but no amount of allaying their fears will cause them to change their mind, and some point they’ll get annoyed at the stupid questions.

This is the difference between traditionalism, the mode of thought used by the Africans in this example, and modernism, used by the Westerners. Of course, few Africans live in traditional tribes and maintain a traditionalist mode of thought nowadays. Few Africans are like those described by Haidt. It is a dying cultural relic. And historically, we find similar thinking around the world.

Traditionalism doesn’t believe that meaning stems from reasons, fundamental universal principles, or anything similar. Instead, meanings just are. This doesn’t prevent, in principle, the African tribespeople from taking incest to be immoral except on Fridays, though in practice overly complex meanings like this are too hard to pass on and sustain without the simplifying tool of modernism.

The Westerners, unlike the Africans in this example, believe that morality is grounded in something deeper — Haidt’s book is a long exploration of what that something is, or can be. So they can eventually be convinced that this particular instance of incest doesn’t harm their universal principles and thus they can change their minds. I’ll talk more about the Westerners when I get to modernism.

I should note: nothing intrinsic to Africans causes the above, nor to Westerners. The difference in intellectual culture doesn’t excuse imperialism, colonialism, or racism. Actually, few African tribespeople lack modernist thought, nor do all Westerners possess it. Nonetheless, in aggregate studies we can find tribes this stark difference between the two groups.


Traditionalism has problems, and the Western philosophical tradition spent approximately 2000 years dissecting them.

The major problem of traditionalism is that conflicts between meanings are difficult to resolve. Suppose John and Mary do their thing in an African tribe or, if you prefer, in a German village in 500 AD. John and Mary think what they did was moral, but their neighbors do not. What can they do to resolve the disagreement?

Traditionalism offers several sources of conflict resolution: authority, history, and loyalty. They may ask the village/tribal elder to determine which of them is right; they may look at previous cases of incest; or they may argue that the action was necessary out of loyalty to their family or, alternatively, was disloyal to the tribe. Ultimately, since meanings are fixed and inherent, the only way of resolving meanings is to find the person with the greatest skill in seeing them, whether that is an elder, an ancestor, or a vote of the tribe.

However, these solutions are unworkable in many cases. If two tribes disagree, there may be no authority both recognize — at least none that will weigh in. They may each recall different parts of history, and perhaps will not trust the other’s historical recollection. They may have no loyalty to each other. These unresolveable conflicts lead to pain, misery, and hardship — perhaps one tribe would be unable to convince the other to pay it compensation, so the two tribes will war.

Another problem with traditionalism is that it has difficulty relating complex meanings. Determining whether murder is right or wrong is easy, one well-solved by traditionalism. What about sleeping with someone else at work? Murder is pretty much always wrong, so that one is easy. Sleeping with someone at work is context-dependent in complicated ways: it matters if you work together, if they’re above you in the hierarchy, if it’s casual or drunken or serious or a mistake. There are simply too many different meanings to support with traditionalism. If your life throws up too many context-dependent complicated situations, eventually you and your tribal elder get tired of resolving each hap-hazardly and start looking for some unifying themes.

Finally, traditionalism makes it hard to answer questions you don’t already know the answer to. If I don’t know whether a certain action is moral, there might be no way to find out without recourse to authority, loyalty, or history. This makes it difficult to use traditionalism in novel situations.


If the fundamental property of traditionalism is the inherent-ness of meaning, modernism is the antidote. Modernism is best captured by the word “because”. You should obey the king because he protects you from the evil people next door. Incest is bad because it causes the birth of children with genetic abnormalities. The key is that meanings are no longer fixed. Instead, it’s the ultimate value that a meaning derives from that’s fixed; the meaning of a particular object is flexible, and can change as you discover more about the context and the world.

(There can also be several reasons for a meaning, so the justification can be complex. There may be many benefits, or harms, to having a king.)

Modernism isn’t inherently more correct that traditionalism — humans have been able to justify everything from genocide to slavery in a modernist framework. But it does provide an answer to traditionalism’s problems. If you and I disagree on whether something is moral or beautiful or clever, we can demand each other’s justification, until one of us finds the justification lacking. If we want to know whether something is moral or beautiful or clever, we can look at our deeper values and see which values it upholds. And complex meanings can be supported by complex reasoning from simple premises. That way the complexity of our meanings can match the complexity of our world while still deriving from simple values.

Modernist thought often emphasizes limited power, responsibility, roles, and boundaries. These features emerge from the basic principle of modernism: that meaning is derived from ultimate sources of meaning, which we might call values or ideals.

The modernist revolution

You might date post-traditionalism to start with the pre-Socratic philosophers, who first questioned whether the basic meanings that everyone agreed upon were really true. The paradoxes of motion, composition, and truth; Socrates’s questioning the moral norms of Athens; and Plato’s dialogues all pointed to the basic problem that traditionalism cannot justify its meanings. Later philosophers invented the thought experiment to demonstrate traditionalism’s inability to generalize to unfamiliar situations. The growing multi-culturalism of the Mediterranean meant that clashes of meaning happened more and more often, making the impossibility of resolving conflicts more and more pressing. And as society grew more complex, with more roles for people, more complex meanings had to be sustained. (I’m less familiar with the thoughts of Confucius, who led the analogous revolution in China.)

Modernism arose haltingly and in various fields at various times. Aristotle invented logic to be the ultimate way reach true, unshakable knowledge. Augustine argued that kings had responsibilities before their subjects, and that merchants had a right to charge a profit. Galileo whispered “And yet it moves”, making the real world, not Church doctrine, the ultimate test of truth. Descartes grounded philosophy on a foundation of reason. Kant formed morality as deriving from a universal rule, the Categorical Imperative. It occurred, too, in art, where art first organized around the principle of representing the world, then around the principle of representing human emotion. Each of these steps was a part of the project of modernism.

(This is a cartoon history of philosophy — excuse the broad strokes, please. It’s a big picture to draw!)

The project of modernism

Modernism isn’t any particular set of justifications — it’s the overall idea of using justifications to ground meanings. It first found its footing in the small: justifications were short and the ultimate values were applicable to only a few situations. But the modernist project eventually took shape: to derive all meanings from a single coherent and unarguable system. This meant joining the disparate justifications of different fields together and slowly building them into a justification for everything.

This didn’t mean there wouldn’t be mis-steps along the way. In science, the fluid theory of heat was useful for a while, but it couldn’t be extended deeper to fit a larger system, so it was discarded. Meanwhile, the thermodynamic theory of heat was so useful and could be joined to such a large body of other justifications that it is still in use.

Modernism’s best example is science and technology — it’s no surprise that those are the best-known symbols of our time. Science has built a system of justifications that reaches up from something called a quark all the way up to economies, psychologies, and ecosystems. I’m told most of the pieces connect up. Science hopes to connect the pieces and have one system of justifications that can assign one specific meaning, truth, to everything.

Other attempts at modernism have been less successful. Attempts to build modernist ethical theories have splintered between three underwhelming camps. Catholicism built a system of justifications for all sorts of things, but has now been hemmed in to assigning just moral and spiritual meaning to things. (Yet at one point it also assigned truth, beauty, and economic honesty.)

Die-hard modernists, like engineers or fundamentalists, might still believe in the modernist project. And it’s good that they do, because the modernist project is hard work! Many meanings are subtle, context-dependent, and shifting, in a way beyond the ability of mere mortals to explain. Catholic doctrine is likely the best example: in a circumscribed, technical sense, the Church claims to have never made a mistake. And over thousands of years, everything from capitalism to slavery has been made coherent with Catholic doctrine. Yet still this structure struggles to cope as the world changes around it.


Though phenomenally successful at fixing traditionalism’s flaws, modernism has problems of its own.

Post-modernists first lost faith in the possibility of ever completing the modernist project. Science has largely disavowed ever assigning moral meaning. Religious groups have failed one too many times at describing the physical universe. Marxism’s grounding of value in labor ended disastrously. And what about cleverness, honesty, or beauty? Could all meanings really be grounded in a single base?

The shrinking of the world also made the existence of multiple incompatible types of justification more obvious. Sunni Islam justifies the legislative framework of Sharia law, while the American Revolution justifies the legislative framework of liberalism. The two are incompatible. As Haidt argues in his book, conservatives and liberals in the US have different moral frameworks — different ways of deriving moral meanings. Modernism cannot resolve these conflicts because both groups can continue giving justifications ad nauseum, or at least until both reach ultimate values that cannot be ranked or compared.

The growth of decentralized communications systems made it easier and easier to build, market, and sell systems of justification. From energy crystals to autism vaccines, a large and impressive intellectual framework can now be found for every crackpot idea. The existence of justification is not longer a test — it is a given.

Finally, some meanings, though they are as human as any other, proved hard or impossible to justify. Artistic beauty, culinary taste, or musical preference has proven difficult to ground in ultimate values (though people have tried!). Scientists have ground the stuff of the world into the smallest bits and have failed to find particles of justice, morality, beauty, honesty, or cleverness, and attempts to ground one meaning in another — honesty in truth, morality in value, beauty in honesty — fail to capture the rich nuance of the meaning being explained away. Losing these meanings seems disastrous. Artistic relativism seems sustainable for today’s intellectuals, but moral relativism does not, yet we’ve failed to find justification for both meanings, and it’s beginning to look increasingly likely that we never will.

Resisting post-modernism

Some people deny or decry post-modernism as nihilistic, morally relativist, reductionist, materialist, or any number of other bad things. Of course, modernism can be all of those things equally well — science can be nihilistic, for example, or capitalism materialist (and both can be the opposite). But people who deny post-modernism are incorrect for a deeper reason: post-modernism accurately describes the failure of the modernist project and this failure cannot be fixed within modernism.

Some hold out hope that the modernist project can succeed: that morality can be grounded in science (9 out of 10 utilitarians agree), that beauty can be reduced to science or rendered meaningless, that spirituality is useless or is perhaps enhanced by an empirical viewpoint, that materialism can be made to lead to happiness, and so on. They are entitled to their opinion, but the very diversity of possibilities makes these options seem unlikely.

Others worry that though modernism is flawed, no better tools exist. If morality cannot be grounded in an ultimate source, how are we to say that some things, like murder and slavery, are wrong? If modernism is a failure, perhaps no way to resolve conflicts can be found. This worry is sounder than the previous, since nothing to replace modernism has yet been found. (At least, nothing with the coherence of modernism itself.) Yet I, and many others, hold out hope for something (which I’m calling constructionism) to solve this problem.


Constructionism is my name for the future. Humanity has not yet understood how to solve the problems of modernism. At best, thinkers have come up with scraps of the solution, possible approaches, and promising paths to explore. I’m going to talk about a few that appeal to me — but the future is open and unknown.

Constructionism is my name for whatever comes after modernism. It’s named after what I think will be a crucial step: understanding the way in which humans construct meaning.

Traditionalism saw meaning as inherent; modernism saw meaning as derived. But many thinkers now say that meaning is constructed. That is, meaning is neither inherent in a thing (an action is not inherently good or bad, painting is not inherently beautiful or ugly, a statement is not inherently honest or dishonest) nor derived via justification (an action isn’t good because it helps another and because helping others is the ultimate good; the painting is not beautiful because it represents reality and representing reality is the ultimate purpose of art) but is instead the result of a dialog where people collaborate to choose the thing’s meaning.

Thus, when art critics discuss a painting, they are neither trying to determine whether or not the painting is inherently beautiful, nor are they trying to prove that the painting is or is not beautiful. Instead, by discussing the art, the critics are creating the meaning of the painting. The richer and more detailed the discussion, the richer and more meaningful the meaning of the painting. Thus, different people disagree on meanings not because one is wrong, nor because they have different values, but because they are not engaging in dialog — were these people to discuss between themselves honestly and deeply, they would find that both come away with a richer meaning that accommodates both.

Since constructionism acknowledges that a single dialog should exist, instead of two one-direction streams of justification, it has no problem with multiple incompatible types of justification. Instead, it argues that having multiple types of justification enriches the dialog, since all participants can apply each type of justification. In fact, whereas modernism wants to examine all meanings through a single framework, constructionism wants to examine meanings through many frameworks, and understand meaning by the relationships between those frameworks — this is intersectionality.

What constructionism needs to do

I just told you how constructionism might solve the problems of modernism. But it also needs to provide the same things provided by modernism. Let’s see what that entails.

Modernism promises to make some meanings clear-cut and objective. Motion, composition, appearance, and taste have all been boiled down to fundamental physical particles and grounded in scientific knowledge. This gives us a certainty in discussion them that is comforting and useful. Modernism has not succeeded in providing that in aesthetics, morality, or value — but doing so is very seductive. Constructionism has to somehow provide a notion of morality, aesthetics, and value that is based not in objective scientific reality but in constructed social reality, yet is still compelling. That is, constructionism has to find a middle road between moral relativism and moral absolutism, a middle ground between representational and contemporary art, and so on. (Maybe it’s not so much a middle road as a Third Way.)

Success on that ground, for example, means the ability to have conviction that slavery is wrong, without also claiming that it is obviously wrong. After all, some of the most intelligent men and women of 1840s America accepted and fought for slavery, and had intelligent justifications for it. They were wrong. Slavery is horrible. But it could not have been obviously wrong and horrible. How can we reconcile the difficulty of coming to a conclusion with our extreme confidence in it?

A lack of justification is no longer a good test of whether to believe someone — even crazy people have complex justifications nowadays, and justifications can now be marketed and sold. We need a new test of intellectual good faith. If constructionism is as I suggested above, then participation in an honest dialog can be that test. But what makes a dialog honest, and what delimits participation? Today we have millions of sub-communities which do not talk (though they sometimes throw insults over each others’ walls). What dialog must these communities participate in to be legitimate?

Success on this ground may look like the establishment of a “global dialog”, with rules of behavior, that communities must participate in to gain legitimacy. Defining these rules, policing them, and structuring the global dialog is a difficult path, but would lend credence to constructionism. (Some people who hypothesize about what comes after postmodernism would say that this is the inevitable result of the Internet and the globalization of the news. That is one possibility.)

Some things have proven impossible to justify in modernism — we call them personal taste. How can these be integrated into constructionism? How do communities of one integrate into the global dialog? Or does constructionism require that individuals form communities for each of their personal tastes?

Success here would be a place in society for crackpots that is not harmful to society as a whole, yet integrated with it. It means an integration of currently-hidden communities (racists, the oppressed, the poor, those with very specific sexual desires, those with very rare diseases) into society and an appreciation of their point of view, without necessarily legitimizing or glorifying the abhorent beliefs. To do this, constructionism will need to find the middle ground between acknowledging a view and accepting or legitimizing it.

I hope the future will get us there. It’s an exciting time to be alive!

Intellectual revolutions in the small

I’ve described intellectual revolutions on the level of societies and cultures. But the same intellectual revolutions occur in the small — interpersonal — and tiny — intrapersonal — scales. These intellectual revolutions are stages of maturity for individuals, and accomplishing each can dramatically improve one’s life. But I’ll talk about that some later time.