Critique of the Secular Mind: A Comparative Study of the Thought of Zygmunt Bauman and Abdel Wahab El-Messiri

Recently published by the ACRPS, Haggag Ali’s Critique of the Secular Mind: A Comparative Study of the Thought of Zygmunt Bauman and Abdel Wahab El-Messiri uses a comparative method to build a critique of the secular mind and its knowledge foundations in Western heritage.

The book (336 pp.) researches how the main interpretive models were formed and used in criticizing this reason and modernity. The convergence of the critical discourse of Bauman (who was Jewish) and the El-Messiri (who was Muslim) is manifested in two basic paradigms: solid modernity (material rationalism) and liquid modernity (irrational materialism).

The author seeks to uncover the cognitive maps of Western modernity and the secular mind of Bauman and El-Messiri, because both see secular modernity as a comprehensive vision of knowledge for God, humankind and nature, despite differing in their answers to the predicament of modernity. Ali uses interpretive models and metaphorical images to unearth this vision.

Ali starts by looking at Islamic discourse and the Jewish experience. Bauman and El-Messiri, despite cultural, ideological and religious differences, devoted their critical efforts to curbing the ego and grandeur of secularism, especially its celebration of a cosmopolitan world centered on nature, and an epistemological vision of natural sciences centered around man. They called for the establishment of a new science; while Bauman saw the answer in “critical sociology”, El-Messiri advocated Fiqh al-taÍayyuz or the science of understanding bias. Both promoted an ontological hermeneutic foundation that solid binary based on the conflict between subjectivity and objectivity.  

Ali explores the paradigms of Thomas Kuhn and Graham C. Kinloch and compares them with those of El-Messiri, who sees the paradigm as an analytical tool that connects the subjective and the objective, thus combining it between the empiric observation and the intuitive moment, cognitive accumulation and the knowledge leap, strict observation and pleasant imagination, and between separation and connection. He presented the model of Eric Voegelin, who said that his critical approach was to deal with ontology and epistemology as synonymous and to resort to generalization and abstraction through the idea of a "common element".

The author presents the idea of “radical enlightenment” and the metaphorical image of Enlightenment, the role of Enlightenment thinkers, and the term "nature" as the code of secular modernity. Enlightenment is linked to the Cartesian rationalism which has come to mean the establishment of universal essential idealist standards for science, art and aesthetic judgment. "These criteria can be seen as a typical representation of the myth of Prometheus, which celebrates the self-sufficiency of human capacity, and the relentless attempts to put man in the center of the universe, a belief in his ability to discover the laws of nature and his determination to make progress without recourse to any metaphysical or teleological terminology.”

According to Ali, the age of modernity requires a metaphorical picture to describe the new reality. Baumann uses the image of the gardener to symbolize the insistence of human will to achieve paradise in the earth. "Philosophers and rulers of the modern era were legislators in the first place; they found a world of chaos, so they tried to tame and replace it with a world of order." El-Messiri disagrees with Bauman, describing the Enlightenment thinkers as promoters of "dark enlightenment." Ali concludes that El-Messiri and Bauman were very natural, and that their intellectual content was the code of secular modernity. This means that Enlightenment and secularism can only be understood by breaking the code of nature.

Ali goes on to discuss Gnostic Modernity and the notion of religious superiority that precedes philosophical thought. He believes that understanding of modernity acquires a new depth if the contemporary critical conflict between modern and Christian ideologies can be understood as a new outbreak of an old conflict between Christianity and the heresy of the Gnostic, describing progressive and liberal movements and ideas, Marxism, psychoanalysis, communism, fascism and German national socialism as Gnostic.

Bauman argued that one of the main consequences of the Enlightenment movement and the spirit of modernity is the emergence of the "culture of universal taboo". Modernity has emerged as a national entity that prunes the paradise of the homeland, accompanied by the return of the concept of the empty entity, referring metaphorically to every other alien from who all human rights, including the right to exist, can be robbed. It is usually associated with the embodiment of the absolute sovereign right to exclude the alien other from the scope of human and divine laws, where the evil object becomes an existence that can be destroyed without punishment, despite its destruction lacking any religious or moral significance. Bauman sought to reinforce his interpretation of the consequences of modernity by dealing with modernist Jewish groups. He saw that the Holocaust could be underestimated sociologically if it was portrayed as occurring only to the Jews, or in Jewish history alone. The El-Messiri functional group model is a metaphorical image that is very close to that of Bauman’s image of the alien other and the homeless. This new metaphor can be applied to several groups in history (the Roma of Europe and Egypt, Armenian merchants in the Ottoman Empire, Mamluks of Egypt, Samurais of Japan in the face of modernity), but Jewish groups are the original model for functional groups throughout history.

The author discusses the intellectual return to the issue of the bureaucratic machine and the sovereignty of the modern totalitarian state that threatens individuality and freedom. In his view, postmodernism has become an opportunity to open up the closed systems of secular modernity. Although Baumann found in postmodernism an opportunity to unearth the closed systems of modernity and transcend the universal aspirations of intellectuals as legislators, he realized the dilemmas of postmodernism and in particular its tendency to question its heritage. According to Ali,El-Messiri did not accept to break from the impasse of secular modernity by establishing “an ethics without metaphysics or by establishing an ethics based on metaphysics of immanence.” He asserted that secular modernity in the solid phase at the end of the nineteenth century could no longer be reconciled, and its latent transformations reached their pinnacle in the second half of the twentieth century.

Bauman and Masiri describe the transition from modernity to postmodernity as a latent shift from solid modernity or solid material rationality to liquid modernity or to irrational materialism. In carnivorous consumer societies, such lofty concepts as self and identity are hidden, and the scene is dominated by the image of the body. But the celebration of the body is no longer centered on intensifying production and capital accumulation in industrial sites or military service; as Anthony Giddens says: 'in the spheres of biological reproduction, genetic engineering and medical interventions of many sorts, the body is becoming a phenomenon of choices and options." In the era of solid modernity, sex was one of the most prominent aspects of modern power and control. But sex is no longer a tool to create lasting social structures, and now works in the service of continuous fragmentation.

El-Messiri found that the Modernity project began with the declaration of the centrality of man and his ability to control nature. It ended however with “the declaration of the death of man in favour of such non-human categories such as the machine, the state, the market and the power, or in favour of such one-dimensional categories as body, sex and pleasure.” He also perceived “the celebration of sexuality as a turning point of the transformation of modernity from solidity to liquidity. Sensual pleasure is no longer the monopoly of a group or class, and it became available to all under the name of democratization of hedonism.”

Read Also