The modernism which shaped the culture of the twentieth century can be traced to the philosophy of G.E. Moore, with its characteristic separation of fact and value. This already assumes a separation of subject and object, so loosing both the conditions of freedom and the mind’s way to reality.
As the rising star of philosophy at Cambridge in the era of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein, G.E. Moore became an architect of modernism. He is memorable and still influential for a characteristic emphasis on objectivity, realism, individualism, and the fictional nature of much that occupies our thoughts and language. Embedded in this common sense of modernism is Moore’s famous distinction between questions of value and questions of fact, with a fatal flaw.
If goodness as an object is real to us in highly individual ways, such a reality is scarcely distinguishable from fiction. Indeed, in the Bloomsbury set where Moore’s influence was most keenly felt and appreciated, value was pursued in fiction and fine art: if need be, at the expense of conventional morality, and any wider sense of purpose. The Great Society celebrated in this spirit, including such luminaries as John Maynard Keynes and Virginia Woolf, easily appeared as arrogant and brittle as the Empire with which it passed.
My argument here is simply that value specifically can least of all be secured within this complex of ideas. Value defined in contradistinction to fact bears no relation to how we speak of it, and a value apprehended only in individuality cannot be valuable in the social sense. In fact we speak easily of a bad harvest or good health, and more readily than of good ideas or evil intent. Ironically, in the light of modernism, Christ reminded us of the essential beauty of the lilies of the valley, and urged us to examine ourselves before judging each other.
Modernism in this way marked the dissolution of Christian consensus in Europe, and yet later in the century mingled uneasily with the faith in the inner cities and sprawling suburbs of the US. There the cynical realism of Richard Rorty matched Ayn Rand’s fascination with the objectivity of power, so that individualism readily seemed an end in itself, the value of it all. In a further irony, Kant in the Enlightenment had already taken freedom or moral agency in this way, and dared to ask how it can be objectively possible.
In this light it is starkly clear that Moore required for his position an irrevocable separation of human awareness and motivation from objective circumstances. This fractured reality can but leave one clueless in asking after sound judgment or clear vision, as valued in leaders, and in the pursuit of knowledge; or again, in seeking a healthy environment, or conditions for a good harvest. The crisis of modernism is now upon us with a hundred thousand acres of farmland lost to mutant weeds through rash use of genetically engineered crops; and the Wall Street Journal ranks the great cities of the free by the foulness of their air.
It remains to ask how we can think without assuming and irrevocable separation of the subjective and objective. As foul air enters the lungs and bloodstream, it comes to act behind the scenes of consciousness, dulling thought and depressing one’s outlook. On reflection only subjectivity so truly immersed in circumstance can be expected to adapt and make the best of it.
At the same time one must admit that what is discovered as fact is always apprehended in the light of human purposes. There are rocks in the New World every bit as old as those found in Asia, and the name records how the place appeared as the last frontier of human settlement. If we are now asked to face facts and accept China as the rising power, that has much to do with what is expected of it, and can never make of the place a New World in the same sense.