There are many ways to set the beginning of the modern period. One is to take the age of discoveries. Not for the sake of the discoveries themselves, but rather for what determined the waves of exploration and for how they shaped human perception and self-perception. Another is to look at art. Another is to look at political maturity. Yet another is to focus on contestation, which is really a spin-off of the culture of disputation – and of dialogue.
The modern age begins in dialogue. Paradoxically, it was also about deepening the roots of introspective monologue: that little voice inside your head that spills on the pages of Augustine’s Confessions, Abelard’s Letters, Montaigne’s Essays. Every textbook insists that the self emerges in the early modern period. We can accept that. The dialogue, however, is the reverse of the same coin. It took philosophy a long time to rise up to the fact that we are selves insofar as we are surrounded by others. Buber, Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, all had the same insight, although they worked it out in different ways.
Dialogue does not come easy. It should not be confused with just any kind of interpersonal communication. We are lucky that even in a Germanic language like English, we have kept the logue in dialogue, or log, if you’re in a North American hurry. The log in logos is the divine reason, the ground of personhood, the Word, source of intelligibility, cooperation and (self)-discoverability. That the human species discovered it is a remarkable thing.
Dialogue is the ping-pong game of logos of one person with another. The Greeks started it, the Romans continued it and the Western Middle Ages made it an indelible cultural phenomenon. The culture of disputation that rises from the 12th century onwards in northern European urban schools and then in universities all around Western Europe creates a culture of contestation – one which we have inherited today. The Reformation, the Enlightenment, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, 1848, 1968, 1989, and all other 1990- and 2000-somethings, all go back to Plato, Cicero and the humble medieval classroom.