Modern Versus Western Thought:  An Overview

Nov 02, 2016 |  William H. Young

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Modern Versus Western Thought:  An Overview

Nov 02, 2016 | 

William H. Young

Modern thought—developed in America over roughly the past century, originated largely in the academy, and propagated by its elite progeny—has come to differ in profound ways from the accepted tenets and uses of Western thought at our founding, turning to various forms of subjectivism and determinism—with mostly negative consequences for our society and individuals.

For subjectivism, these changes evinced: feelings vice reason; emotion vice reflection; instinct vice intuition; illusion vice reality; mere opinion vice knowledge; unconscious bias vice evidence; solipsism vice empathy; relativism vice virtue; and adolescence vice adulthood. Of course, I do not include or criticize here the historically appropriate role of subjectivism in art.

For determinism, these changes evinced: culture vice biology or nature; social constructionism vice self-determination; the identity group vice the individual; collective will vice rule of law; Marxism vice capitalism; entitlement vice responsibility and reciprocity; relativism vice truth; and political correctness vice freedom of expression and common sense.

Those transmutations of Western to Modern thought underlie the degradation of education and knowledge, of the vocabulary and content of elite intellectual as well as common conversation, civil exchange, political dialogue, societal decision-making, and media of all kinds (print, audio, video, social).

Since the ancient Greeks, man has theorized about thought and tried to explain it. Of particular relevance to America are the ideas about thought that began to emerge in the seventeenth-century West. At the end of the eighteenth century, the American Enlightenment and emerging universities advanced some and rejected other concepts of philosophy and psychology within Western thought, and envisioned and encouraged a distinctly American type exercising certain kinds of cognition and behavior described below.

By the early twentieth century, with new insights about the unconscious mind, psychology (in addition to art) became infused with subjectivism. But academic thought also turned to determinism—progressive political philosophy, the so-called social construction of human nature in social science, and behaviorism in psychology. From the mid-twentieth century, humanistic psychology, changes in education, social character, parenting and adolescence, and the Cultural Revolution turned the academy and society toward subjectivism while cultural determinism came to prevail in the form of multiculturalism, diversity, and sustainability.

A new series of articles will demonstrate how these evolutions of subjectivism and determinism resulted in the changed tenets, summarized above, that define Modern thought in the academy and society today. The series will show just how different Modern thought is from accepted Western thought at the founding and how inimical Modern thought—especially that taught and utilized in academia—is proving to be to the people and future of America. Ironically, the series will also illustrate how some misguided Modern thought returns to and accepts concepts of Western thought that were appropriately rejected by the American Founders, as noted below.

The Founding

America was founded upon the Western idea—beginning with the Greeks—that man has a common human nature with universal instincts. Aristotle first defined the essential terms of philosophy and psychology to which the Enlightenment returned and refined to overturn Middle Age metaphysics as the basis for Western thought.

Our Founders’ version of Western thought rejected: Rene Descartes’ innate ideas as the sole route to human knowledge; John Locke’s concept that knowledge comes only from sensations, from which mediating ideas are formed by use of reason; and David Hume’s conclusion that such ideas are only feelings. The Founders based their rejections on the work of a man of whom most Americans have never even heard: Thomas Reid and his Scottish Common Sense philosophy and psychology.

Reid first demonstrated that our perception is structured by the constitution of the human mind and allows us to comprehend objects themselves. Further, there are certain first principles of knowledge, or “self-evident truths,” that are the starting point for subsequent reasoning. Reid used the term “common sense” to refer to these self-evident truths (the term Thomas Jefferson applied in the Declaration of Independence) and the intellectual powers that verified them.[1] Today, we call such truths “intuitive knowledge.”

Even the ordinary individual possessed common sense, a basic ability to perceive and understand self-evident truths and to make judgments necessary for self-rule. Application of reason and Francis Bacon’s scientific method improved understanding to produce fully objective knowledge. The Founders embraced the philosophical principles of the moderate British Enlightenment and the Scottish philosophers, “the formulae of balance, order, and rationality.”[2]

The founding concept of Western thought also rejected the classical view that individuals are mere parts of a polity that develops their virtue in favor of Scotsman Adam Smith’s theories that pursuit of happiness through commerce in the private sphere channels human nature towards production, yielding individual satisfaction, a union among the people, and a public good. Reciprocity in that sphere also satisfies the desire for the recognition and esteem of others within human nature.

From the Scottish Moral Sense philosophy of Francis Hutcheson, Hume, and Smith, the Founders learned that all human beings have a moral sense and intuition to discern moral principles and distinguish between good and evil, right and wrong, and virtue and vice. From the Scots, the Founders also conceived of personal and civic virtue as the restraint of selfish dispositions, leading to the exercise of prudence.

Common Sense and Moral Sense philosophy helped produce an American cultural type: individuals with a common human nature and an independent intellect using an intrinsic common sense, combined with an assertive self-respect and grounded by an innate moral sense as well as an ethic of adult personal responsibility and reciprocity. That belief system became the basis for the standard curriculum in American colleges for the nineteenth century, which formed the psychology and philosophy of our leadership elite until near the end of that century.[3]

From Renaissance humanism, the British Enlightenment, and Protestantism, our Founders absorbed the importance of education, to improve reason and conscience for the person’s sake, and to provide wisdom for participation in the world of men and affairs.

The First Turn to Modern Thought

From the late nineteenth century, novel concepts of the unconscious mind, first advanced by Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, William James, and others, began to effect fundamental changes in the understandings of psychology. The subjective unconscious was increasingly seen to determine man’s thoughts and acts. The common meaning of rationalism at the founding, “to make conformable to reason,” began to be replaced by a psychological definition, “inventing a reason for an often unconscious action the motive of which is not recognized.”[4]

Rationalism in another form—by society rather than the individual—would also emerge in the same time period, from European efforts to emulate natural science by creating a new science of society in which experts could determine social outcomes. It spread to America through the sociological theories of Emile Durkheim, who first articulated the denial of human nature and the autonomy of culture from individual minds.[5]

In America, the now-dominant doctrine of social constructionism (or determinism)—the individual has no human nature (and thus no common sense or reason) except that formed by society and culture—grew into an article of faith in academic social science. John Dewey (like Rousseau and Marx) would argue that “society, not the individual makes the mind.”[6] Behaviorism—man’s behavior can be entirely conditioned (determined) by external forces acting on the blank slate of the unconscious—became the leading belief within psychology until the mid-twentieth century.

Academic social science also turned away from the founding British philosophies to the German idealism of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and the economic determinism of Karl Marx. Applying the assumptions of behaviorism, progressive historians such as Charles Beard dismissed the founding ideas as rationalizations for underlying economic determinism or interests.[7]

Modern thought began to take its bearings from the subjective expressions of the unconscious mind and psychological, social, and cultural determinism rather than reason and rational thought. The thought of individuals would begin to be determined by groups that conferred their identity. Progressivism also adopted Rousseau’s deterministic concept of the collective “general will”—that individual happiness, recognition, and esteem must come from the state rather than the unjust private sphere.[8]

In the mid-twentieth century, subjectivism and determinism took new paths. Humanistic psychology redirected attention to the conscious mind, but self-actualization, the human potential movement, and the therapeutic society focused the self on subjectivism and will rather than objective reality. Today, self-belief is still widely seen as more important than learning.

In The Lonely Crowd (1950), Harvard sociologist David Riesman and other authors—noting the effects of progressive education and Freudian social psychology—foresaw that the “social character” of upper-middle-class Americans was changing from “inner-directed,” based on internalized principles, intellectual ability, and a production ethic, to “other-directed,” based on each person’s cooperative self, what others feel about them, and a consumption  ethic, with new attitudes about thought and emotion from social class or group.[9]

Progressive education gained control of public schooling after World War II, when “life adjustment”—subjectivism—increasingly replaced academic and intellectual development. In 1959, Johns Hopkins sociologist James Coleman discovered an “adolescent society” in high schools that had become anti-intellectual and materialistic and largely isolated from adult influence[10]—but not from the influence of novels such as J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951).[11] Enabled by the permissive parenting of the baby boom generation, this led to a new culture of extended, pampered adolescence as America entered the 1960s.

That culture of adolescence has grown ever more extended, pampered, and degraded over the past five plus decades. Modern thought has come to reflect its result: further degeneration of knowledge and language, which Mark Bauerlein explicates in his essay in The State of the American Mind (2015).[12] He concludes: “Intellectual and abstract reasoning skills among the young may have come to be limited to bounded spheres in which general knowledge and word breadth don’t count so much, such as undemanding entertainment and unskilled labor, a sad prospect for their future.”

The Second Turn to Modern Thought

In The Making of a Counterculture (1969), Theodore Roszak assigned a seminal role in the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s to the pampered baby boomer adolescents who had come to see education as about self-expression and were easily coopted by radical ideologies in the academy. The counterculture opposed the scientism and determinism of the technocracy of both the natural and social sciences who enabled the dominant industrial state that created unequal affluence while despoiling nature and fighting frequent wars.

Modern academic thought (in other than the technical professions) began a turn away from rationality and Western thought—rejecting the scientific mentality, objective consciousness, and knowledge—and towards other modes of thinking emanating from the unconscious mind and based on subjectivism.[13] Radical environmentalism and utopian sustainability replaced the scientific method with subjective nature worship. Feeling—now the oxymoron “emotional reasoning”—replaced intuition, common sense, and reason.

Herbert Marcuse’s cultural Marxism led to new forms of Freudian radical subjectivity and determinism. Self-reliance became self-regard. Gender feminism sees differences between men and women as not biological, but “culturally” determined. Together, cultural Marxism and gender feminism were among the influences in beginning the sexual revolution and emasculation of marriage—subjectivism. Attitudes towards familism in Modern thought changed dramatically. Today, 63 percent of births to non-college-educated Millennial women (10 per cent for those who are college educated) are out-of-wedlock, with worst consequences for children.[14]

After the 1970s, marginalized-group multiculturalism—a new cultural determinism—captured American consciousness via the academy and public education. “Diversity” and the group superseded unity and the individual. Political correctness became a reigning ideology of both subjectivity and behavioral determinism. “Identity” and “oppression” became ideological filters for thinking about race, gender, and sexual orientation.

Social science continues to propagate the “social construction” of human nature through cultural determinism. Academic postmodernism added the social construction of knowledge and reality—subjectivism—which has substantially degraded the veracity of elite- and media-driven public discourse. In Ten Philosophical Mistakes (1985),[15] Mortimer Adler, co-editor of Great Books of the Western World (1952), dismisses those three concepts—denial of human nature and acceptance of mere opinions and isolated figments of our minds—as bases for proper thought. In 1995, Christopher Lasch said about such social construction of reality by elites:

The thinking classes are fatally removed from the physical side of life…They have no experience of making anything substantial or enduring. They live in a world of abstractions and images…as distinguished from the palpable, immediate physical reality inhabited by ordinary men and women….The thinking classes have seceded not just from the common world around them but from reality itself.[16]

Views of reality by ordinary people versus societal elites have become a key political issue this year.

Multiculturalism’s mantra of morality is that one must not be judgmental. The sociological report Lost in Transition (2011), on moral reasoning among 18- to 23-year-olds, found not only moral relativism but lack of even a vocabulary in Modern thought to say anything about right and wrong based on objective reality from the culture they have inherited. Lead author Christian Smith identified a culture of “individualistic subjectivism” based on “a simple-minded ideology presupposing the cultural construction of everything” stemming from the academic postmodern social construction of reality.[17] Peter Wood identifies some of the latest tragic results of that culture of subjectivism in his award-winning article, “The Meaning of Sex.”[18]

The Past and Modern Thought

Ironically, twenty-first-century psychology—but not the academy and Modern thought—is now coming, in some ways, to reflect the understandings and thought of our Founders and the British Enlightenment. Evolutionary psychology has recently confirmed the Founders’ view of an inherent human nature and confounded the concept of social constructionism, while rediscovering the important role of unconscious intuition—what Reid called common sense. Cognitive psychology  is finding that one aspect of human nature is an innate moral sense and is confirming Hume’s idea that the moral sense is the product of the unconscious rather than conscious reasoning.[19]

Much Modern thought—ignoring the findings of today’s cognitive science—also returns in ways to flawed concepts and beliefs that were rejected and corrected at the American founding. Academic social science still sees human nature as a Lockean tabula rasa or “blank slate.” Academia has resurrected Hume’s dominant universe of feelings as the basis for thought. Postmodernism brings back Lockean and Humean psychological subjectivism and solipsism. Perception no longer means seeking self-evident truth per Reid’s common sense, but accepting illusion.

Academic thinking about science has turned to wholly abstract mental models for beliefs such as sustainability and climate change—like Descartes’ flawed innate ideas—rejecting empirical evidence and Bacon’s scientific method. Finally, Modern thought on campuses today accepts cognitive disorders and unconscious biases—Bacon’s idols of the mind— that hinder intuition, common sense, and objective discourse—and may even be teaching students to think pathologically.[20]


“I see the whole destiny of America contained in the first Puritan who landed on its shores,” observed Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America (1835). “They willed to their descendants,” he explained, “the most appropriate habits, ideas, and mores to make a republic.”[21] That Protestant (Puritan) ethic venerated literacy and knowledge and self-determination over self-indulgence—the very core ideas that Modern thought has rejected, with dire consequences for the destiny of our people and our nation.

Modern thought replaces individual intellect, common sense, reason, and moral virtue with feeling and trivia—subjectivism. It displaces objective reality with the “culturally constructed” reality of the group—determinism. Modern thought among our youngest generations now reflects moral relativism, poor knowledge and skills and, relative to peers in other industrialized nations, lowest literacy and numeracy.[22]

Were it even to be possible, it would take decades to replace the forces that brought subjectivism and determinism to academia and again apply the kinds of Western thought adopted by the Founders, enlightened by the understanding of today’s advanced cognitive science and adapted to a twenty-first-century nation.

Meanwhile, the nation must particularly seek to avoid imprudent public policy decisions on matters of significant national consequence—such as on sustainability and climate change—based on subjectivism and determinism. Media content and public opinion polls of Modern thought increasingly form the basis for such policy decisions. When Tocqueville predicted that a great danger to democracy would be enslavement to public opinion,[23] even he could not have foreseen the extent of our modern peril. And our Founders would be aghast at our condition. Their answer would be that the deliberative representative Congressional republic that they designed is still the superior way to reach such decisions, especially those that are controversial.

A new series of articles will further elucidate the substantial differences between the tenets and uses of Modern versus Western thought in the academy and society and the mostly adverse effects in American life that have been the result.  

The next article in the series will cover Thinking from the Founding.


This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.


The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).




[1] Alan Gibson, Interpreting the Founding: Guide to the Enduring Debates Over the Origins and Foundations of the American Republic (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2006), 40–41. S. A. Grave, “Common Sense,” in Paul Edwards, ed., The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol. 2 (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1967), 155–57.

[2] Gibson, Interpreting the Founding, 25–26.

[3] William H. Young, Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (Indianapolis: Xlibris, 2010), 219-20, 225, 227, 229-30, 276-80, 307-09, 326.

[4] “Rationalization (psychology).” Wikipedia,

[5] Emile Durkheim, The Rules of the Sociological Method (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1895/1962), 103–6, 110, quoted in Pinker, The Blank Slate, The Modern Denial of Human Nature (New York: Viking, 2002),23–24. Peter Winch, “Emile Durkheim,” in Edwards, Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2:437–41.

[6] Young, Ordering America, 19-20, 369, 389.

[7] Gordon S. Wood, “Rhetoric and Reality in the American Revolution,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Jan. 1961), 3-32.

[8] Young, Ordering America, 600-01

[9] David Riesman with Nathan Glazer and Ruell Denney, The Lonely Crowd: A study of the changing American character (New Haven: Yale University Press, Originally Published 1950, Abridged Edition, 1961), 59-60.

[10] James Coleman, “Academic Achievement and the Structure of Competition,” Harvard Education Review, Volume 29, No. 4 (Fall 1959). James Coleman, The Adolescent Society: The Social Life of the Teenager and Its Impact on Education (Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1961).

[11] J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (New York: Penguin Random House, 1951).

[12] Mark Bauerlein, “The Troubling Trend of Cultural IQ,” in Mark Bauerlein and Adam Bellow, eds. The State of the American Mind (West Conshohocken, Templeton Press, 2015), 19-31.

[13] Theodore Roszak,The Making of a Counter Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969).

[14] Andrew J. Cherlin, Elizabeth Talbert, and Suzumi Yasutake, “Changing Fertility Patterns and the Transition to Adulthood: Evidence from a Recent Cohort,” Population Association of America Annual Meeting, 1‒3 May 2014.

[15] Mortimer J. Adler, Ten Philosophical Mistakes: Basic Errors in Modern Thought—How They Came About, Their Consequences, and How to Avoid Them (New York: Macmillan, 1985).

[16] Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1995), 4, 20.

[17] Christian Smith, Kari Christoffersen, Hilary Davidson, Patricia Snell Herzog, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 15, 61.

[18] Peter Wood, “The Meaning of Sex,” The Weekly Standard, 4 May 2015.

[19] Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (New York: Viking, 2002). Steven Pinker, “The Moral Instinct,” The New York Times, 13 January 2008. Wilson, Moral Sense, xiii. Robert Wright, “A Grand Bargain Over Evolution,” The New York Times, 23 August 2009. Nicholas Wade, “Is ‘Do Unto Others’ Written Into Our Genes?” The New York Times, 18 September 2007.

[20] Greg Lukiananoff and Jonathan Haidt, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” The Atlantic, September 2015.

[21] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, J. P. Mayer and Max Lerner, eds., George Lawrence, trans. (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1966), 257.

[22] Madeline J. Goodman, Anita M. Sands, and Richard J. Coley, America’s Skills Challenge: Millennials and the Future (Princeton: Educational Testing Service, January 2015.

[23] Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 618.


Image: Dugald Stewart Monument by Peter Nijenhuis // CC BY-NC-ND

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