The Need for Transcendence in the Postmodern World

Václav Havel in front of his favorite painting, Master Theodoric’s portrait of St. Matthew, at Prague’s National Gallery in 1992. (Pavel Štecha)

This is the title of a speech by the deceased former president of Czech republic Vaclav Havel, held in Independence Hall, Philadelphia, July 4, 1994. (Source: Here)

In this postmodern world, cultural conflicts are becoming more dangerous than any time in history. A new model of coexistence is needed, based on man’s transcending himself.

By Vaclav Havel

There are thinkers who claim that, if the modern age began with the discovery of America, it also ended in America. This is said to have occurred in the year 1969, when America sent the first men to the moon. From this historical moment, they say, a new age in the life of humanity can be dated.

I think there are good reasons for suggesting that the modern age has ended. Today, many things indicate that we are going thorough a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something were crumbling, decaying, and exhausting itself, while something else, still indistinct, were arising from the rubble.

Periods of history when values undergo a fundamental shift are certainly not unprecedented. This happened in the Hellenistic period, when from the ruins of the classical world the Middle Ages were gradually born. It happened during the Renaissance, which opened the way to the modern era. The distinguishing features of such transitional periods are a mixing and blending of cultures and a plurality or parallelism of intellectual and spiritual worlds. These are periods when all consistent value systems collapse, when cultures distant in time and space are discovered or rediscovered. They are periods when there is a tendency to quote, to imitate, and to amplify, rather than to state with authority or integrate. New meaning is gradually born from the encounter, or the intersection, of many different elements.

Today, this state of mind or of the human world is called postmodernism. For me, a symbol of that state is a Bedouin mounted on a camel and clad in traditional robes under which he is wearing jeans, with a transistor radio in his hands and an ad for Coca-Cola on the camel’s back. I am not ridiculing this, nor am I shedding an intellectual tear over the commercial expansion of the West that destroys alien cultures. I see it rather as a typical expression of this multicultural era, a signal that an amalgamation of cultures is taking place. I see it as proof that something is happening, something is being born, that we are in a phase when one age is succeeding another, when everything is possible. Yes, everything is possible, because our civilization does not have its own unified style, its own spirit, its own aesthetic.

Science and Modern Civilization

This is related to the crisis, or to the transformation, of science as the basis of the modern conception of the world.
The dizzying development of this science, with its unconditional faith in objective reality and its complete dependency on general and rationally knowable laws, led to the birth of modern technological civilization. It is the first civilization in the history of the human race that spans the entire globe and firmly binds together all human societies, submitting them to a common global destiny. It was this science that enabled man, for the first time, to see Earth from space with his own eyes; that is, to see it as another star in the sky.

At the same time, however, the relationship to the world that the modern science fostered and shaped now appears to have exhausted its potential. It is increasingly clear that, strangely, the relationship is missing something. It fails to connect with the most intrinsic nature of reality and with natural human experience. It is now more of a source of disintegration and doubt than a source of integration and meaning. It produces what amounts to a state of schizophrenia: Man as an observer is becoming completely alienated from himself as a being.

Classical modern science described only the surface of things, a single dimension of reality. And the more dogmatically science treated it as the only dimension, as the very essence of reality, the more misleading it became. Today, for instance, we may know immeasurably more about the universe than our ancestors did, and yet, it increasingly seems they knew something more essential about it than we do, something that escapes us. The same thing is true of nature and of ourselves. The more thoroughly all our organs and their functions, their internal structure, and the biochemical reactions that take place within them are described, the more we seem to fail to grasp the spirit, purpose, and meaning of the system that they create together and that we experience as our unique “self”.

And thus today we find ourselves in a paradoxical situation. We enjoy all the achievements of modern civilization that have made our physical existence on this earth easier so in many important ways. Yet we do not know exactly what to do with ourselves, where to turn. The world of our experiences seems chaotic, disconnected, confusing. There appear to be no integrating forces, no unified meaning, no true inner understanding of phenomena in our experience of the world. Experts can explain anything in the objective world to us, yet we understand our own lives less and less. In short, we live in the postmodern world, where everything is possible and almost nothing is certain.

When Nothing is Certain

This state of affairs has its social and political consequences. The single planetary civilization to which we all belong confronts us with global challenges. We stand helpless before them because our civilization has essentially globalized only the surfaces of our lives. But our inner self continues to have a life of its own. And the fewer answers the era of rational knowledge provides to the basic questions of human Being, the more deeply it would seem that people, behind its back as it were, cling to the ancient certainties of their tribe. Because of this, individual cultures, increasingly lumped together by contemporary civilization, are realizing with new urgency their own inner autonomy and the inner differences of others.

Cultural conflicts are increasing and are understandably more dangerous today than at any other time in history. The end of the era of rationalism has been catastrophic. Armed with the same supermodern weapons, often from the same suppliers, and followed by television cameras, the members of various tribal cults are at war with one another. By day, we work with statistics; in the evening, we consult astrologers and frighten ourselves with thrillers about vampires. The abyss between rational and the spiritual, the external and the internal, the objective and the subjective, the technical and the moral, the universal and the unique, constantly grows deeper.

Politicians are rightly worried by the problem of finding the key to ensure the survival of a civilization that is global and at the same time clearly multicultural. How can generally respected mechanisms of peaceful coexistence be set up, and on what set of principles are they to be established?

These questions have been highlighted with particular urgency by the two most important political events in the second half of the twentieth century: the collapse of colonial hegemony and the fall of communism. The artificial world order of the past decades has collapsed, and a new, more-just order has not yet emerged. the central political task of the final years of this century, then, is the creation of a new model of coexistence among the various cultures, peoples, races, and religious spheres within a single interconnected civilization. This task is all the more urgent because other threats to contemporary humanity brought about by one-dimensional development of civilization are growing more serious all the time.

Many believe this task can be accomplished through technical means. That is, they believe it can be accomplished through the intervention of new organizational, political, and diplomatic instruments. Yes, it is clearly necessary to invent organizational structures appropriate to the present multicultural age. But such efforts are doomed to failure if they do not grow out of something deeper, out of generally held values.

This, too, is well known. And in searching for the most natural source for the creation of a new world order, we usually look to an area that is the traditional foundation of modern justice and a great achievement of the modern age: to a set of values that – among other things – were first declared in this building (Independence Hall). I am referring to respect for the unique human being and his or her liberties and inalienable rights and to the principle that all power derives from the people. I am, in short, referring to the fundamental ideas of modern democracy.

What I am about to say may sound provocative, but I feel more and more strongly that even these ideas are not enough, that we must go farther and deeper. The point is that the solution they offer is still, as it were, modern, derived from the climate of the Enlightenment and from a view of man and his relation to the world that has been characteristic of the Euro-American sphere for the last two centuries. Today, however, we are in a different place and facing a different situation, one to which classical modern solutions in themselves do not give a satisfactory response. After all, the very principle of inalienable human rights, conferred on man by the Creator, grew out of the typically modern notion that man – as a being capable of knowing nature and the world – was the pinnacle of creation and lord of the world,

This modern anthropocentrism inevitably meant that He who allegedly endowed man with his inalienable rights began to disappear from the world: He was so far beyond the grasp of modern science that he was gradually pushed into a sphere of privacy of sorts, if not directly into a sphere of private fancy – that is, to a place where public obligations no longer apply. The existence of a higher authority than man himself simply began to get in the way of human aspirations.

Two Transcendent Ideas

The idea of human rights and freedoms must be an integral part of any meaningful world order. Yet, I think it must be anchored in a different place, and in a different way, than has been the case so far. If it is to be more than just a slogan mocked by half the world, it cannot be expressed in the language of a departing era, and it must not be mere froth floating on the subsiding waters of faith in a purely scientific relationship to the world.
Paradoxically, inspiration for the renewal of this lost integrity can once again be found in science, in a science that is new – let us say postmodern – a science producing ideas that in a certain sense allow it to transcend its own limits. I will give two examples:

The first is the Anthropic Cosmological Principle. Its authors and adherents have pointed out that from the countless possible courses of its evolution the universe took the only one that enabled life to emerge. This is not yet proof that the aim of the universe has always been that it should one day see itself through our eyes. But how else can this matter be explained?

I think the Anthropic Cosmological Principle brings to us an idea perhaps as old as humanity itself: that we are not at all just an accidental anomaly, the microscopic caprice of a tine particle whirling in the endless depth of the universe. Instead, we are mysteriously connected to the entire universe, we are mirrored in it, just as the entire evolution of the universe is mirrored in us.

Until recently, it might have seemed that we were an unhappy bit of mildew on a heavenly body whirling in space among many that have no mildew on them at all. this was something that classical science could explain. Yet, the moment it begins to appear that we are deeply connected to the entire universe, science reaches the outer limits of its powers. Because it is founded on the search for universal laws, it cannot deal with singularity, that is, with uniqueness. The universe is a unique event and a unique story, and so far we are the unique point of that story. But unique events and stories are the domain of poetry, not science. With the formulation of the Anthropic Cosmological Principle, science has found itself on the border between formula and story, between science and myth. In that, however, science has paradoxically returned, in a roundabout way, to man, and offers him – in new clothing – his lost integrity. It does so by anchoring him once more in the cosmos.

The second example is the Gaia Hypothesis. This theory brings together proof that the dense network of mutual interactions between the organic and inorganic portions of the earth’s surface form a single system, a kind of mega-organism, a living planet – Gaia – named after an ancient goddess who is recognizable as an archetype of the Earth Mother in perhaps all religions. According to the Gaia Hypothesis, we are parts of a greater whole. If we endanger her, she will dispense with us in the interest of a higher value – that is, life itself.

Toward Self-Transcendence

What makes the Anthropic Principle and the Gaia Hypothesis so inspiring? One simple thing: Both remind us, in modern language, of what we have long suspected, of what we have long projected into our forgotten myths and perhaps what has always lain dormant within us as archetypes. That is, the awareness of our being anchored in the earth and the universe, the awareness that we are not here alone nor for ourselves alone, but that we are an integral part of higher, mysterious entities against whom it is not advisable to blaspheme. This forgotten awareness is encoded in all religions. All cultures anticipate it in various forms. It is one of the things that form the basis of man’s understanding of himself, of his place in the world, and ultimately of the world as such.
A modern philosopher once said: “Only a God can save us now.”

Yes, the only real hope of people today is probably a renewal of our certainty that we are rooted in the earth and, at the same time, in the cosmos. This awareness endows us with the capacity for self-transcendence. Politicians at international forums may reiterate a thousand times that the basis of the new world order must be universal respects for human rights, but it will mean nothing as long as this imperative does not derive from the respect of the miracle of Being, the miracle of the universe, the miracle of nature, the miracle of our own existence. Only someone who submits to the authority of the universal order and of creation, who values the right to be a part of it and a participant in it, can genuinely value himself and his neighbors, and thus honor their rights as well.

It logically follows that, in today’s multicultural world, the truly reliable path to coexistence, to peaceful coexistence and creative cooperation, must start from what is at the root of all cultures and what lies infinitely deeper in human hearts and minds than political opinion, convictions, antipathies, or sympathies – it must be rooted in self-transcendence:

Transcendence as a hand reached out to those close to us, to foreigners, to the human community, to all living creatures, to nature, to the universe.
Transcendence as a deeply and joyously experienced need to be in harmony even with what we ourselves are not, what we do not understand, what seems distant from us in time and space, but with which we are nevertheless mysteriously linked because, together with us, all this constitutes a single world.
Transcendence as the only real alternative to extinction.
The Declaration of Independence states that the Creator gave man the right to liberty. It seems man can realize that liberty only if he does not forget the One who endowed him with it.

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15 Responses to The Need for Transcendence in the Postmodern World

  1. Toadspittle says:

    This is surely the most thought-provoking article run on CP&S for some time.

    Toad thinks it hinges on what is meant by “Transcendence,” Which is one of those words that mean what each of us wants it to mean – no more, no less. Havel does not choose to define it.
    The dictionary definitions are very little help.
    We are living in a world where nothing is certain. Or so it would seem. We shall just have to get on with it. Wanting things to be certain will not make them so.

    “Only a God can save us now.” Note the “a.”


  2. JabbaPapa says:

    Transcendence signifies a state of reality whereby one reality is shared in various separate instances of that reality.

    In human terms, it would signify for example a reality shared by both you and me, for example, whereby what is shared is viewed as being the same thing, rather than being two identical but separate copies of something else.

    Two people in the same place who see a cat could thus be viewed as having a transcendentally shared experience of the cat, shared by both of the people and by the cat itself — the perception transcends the means of its own existence, so that transcendental interactions between these two people and the cat are made possible within that singular state of reality.

    Language, in that sense, is inherently transcendental, when considered in the light of transcendental philosophy, because it is inherently shared and cannot exist within any single individual 100% independently of all other individuals.


  3. JabbaPapa says:

    Otherwise — postmodernism remains entirely theoretical, and nobody has ever been able to formally demonstrate any clear distinction between modernism and postmodernism.

    But it’s an interesting theory, nevertheless, and it has never OTOH been conclusively falsified either.


  4. Toadspittle says:

    In other words, as Wittgenstein points out, there is no such thing as a “private language.”
    But it’s surely impossible to know how much any experience is, or can be, “shared,” or so it appears to me. One person looking at the cat may see a lovable, cuddly creature, the other a vile, stinking beast.
    Same cat, though.


  5. JabbaPapa says:

    The sort of interpretative relativism that you allude to is of course the very antithesis of transcendentalism.

    But you’re describing interpretation, NOT perception.

    The transcendental theory of perception simply creates the conditions whereby a notion of common perception of a shared reality can be considered as real — it does not presume to enforce identicality of interpretation, analysis, nor any individual conclusions that may be based on that common perception.

    Similarly, the transcendental commonality of language does not automatically provide any transcendental commonality of thought or of the contents of speeches.

    There IS a transcendental theory of interpretation, but I’m rather afraid that it transcends the boundaries of those parts of the transcendentalist basics that are describable using ordinary language.

    The theory is, if that’s any help, incompatible with Dawkins’ semi-useful notion of “memes”.

    It suggests that concepts themselves are shared as common realities, not just multiple copies propagating in the id-space or wherever ; again, not presupposing that the interpretation of said concepts need to always be identical.

    hmmmmm the existence of dictionary definitions of words is somewhat supportive of this notion of an at least foundational commonality of interpretation, to look at the question in a critical manner that is — because of course language learning requires a transcendental process, that seems unexplainable by mere mechanics (the mechanics considered separately do not explain how infants acquire their basic vocabulary and the understanding of that vocabulary).

    From a more religious point of view, Revelation is a blatantly transcendental process.


  6. JabbaPapa says:

    It is quite possible that relativism and transcendentalism could be of the nature of a fundamental cognitive dichotomy.


  7. Toadspittle says:


    Hmmmmm, indeed, Jabba. I’m beginning to think we should get back to foreskins.


  8. JabbaPapa says:

    I cannot recall ever having expounded on the subject of foreskins, so I’m a little dubious about your “we”. Irony intended.

    If I have ever done so, it is most likely to have been during my adolescence.


  9. Frere Rabit says:

    It was indeed a thought-provoking piece by Havel, and the exchange between Jabba and Toad is also a good follow up. I am not sure where transcendent foreskins come into it.

    My only real problem with all of this is that I do not recognise the term “postmodern”. When I was studying linguistics as an undergraduate and fascinated by the ideas of Chomsky and Derrida it seemed as if the concept of postmodernism was incontrovertible. Much later, after Christian conversion and then Catholic conversion, I began to re-evaluate my understanding of modernism and in that process I came to the conclusion that postmodernism does not exist: it is simply an extension of modernism. The balancing act between Catholic theology and modernism has been the defining story of the Church in the modern period, but it has impinged much less on Catholic individuals, who largely still remain unaware of the issues. “Postmodernism” might signal the end of a need to be alert to the dangers of “modernism”, and that is a trap for the unwary.

    I don’t think that much of Havel’s article would be affected by removing the term “postmodern” and replacing it with “Late Modern”. Just a thought. And I’m sure the transcendent foreskins still don’t come into it.


  10. JabbaPapa says:

    I came to the conclusion that postmodernism does not exist: it is simply an extension of modernism

    That’s the basic counter-position in a nutshell, thanks Rabit !!

    The issue being, of course, that the counter-position hasn’t been proven either.

    I personally tend to agree with you, but then the question seems to be that everyone seems to be at a complete loss as to what name to provide to the currently dominant intellectual doctrine of “post-poststructuralism” …


  11. JabbaPapa says:

    De Saussure is a lot more reliable than Chomsky IMO.


  12. Toadspittle says:

    The point is: foreskins don’t come into it.

    And Toad is plainly confusing Jabba for someone else. Who shall be nameless.
    Non-existence is a prerequisite of postmodernism, in his opinion, WTM (whatever that means). ISF (insert smiley face)


  13. Frere Rabit says:

    De Saussure was ground-breaking, and a great foundation but so was Chomsky compelling with his transformational generative grammar. Unfortunately Chomsky let politics run away with his linguistic concepts and he became dogmatic, eventually dated and stuck in an academic cul-de-sac. WTM / ISF / WTF


  14. JabbaPapa says:

    Chomsky’s work is valuable — let’s leave it at that. 🙂


  15. hagioptasia says:

    Well reasoned ideas about ‘transcendence’ that might be worth being aware of (as can you find good reasoning to dispute them?):


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