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Minding the Modern: Human Agency, Intellectual Traditions, and Responsible Knowledge
Minding the Modern: Human Agency, Intellectual Traditions, and Responsible Knowledge
Thomas Pfau
University of Notre Dame Press, 2013
728 pp., $75.00

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Matthew J. Milliner


A Secular Age 2.0

Thomas Pfau and the irreducible mystery of personhood.

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Back in the Seventies, the noted anthropologist Max Müller put it this way: "Every day, every week, every month, every quarter, the most widely read journals seem just now to vie with each other in telling us that the time for religion is past, that faith is a hallucination or an infantile disease, that the gods have at last been found out and exploded, and that there is no possible knowledge except what comes to us through our senses." Even while a lingering, residual religion still pervaded the atmosphere, the smart set was discovering that religion was a sham. But those were the Seventies, more specifically, the 1870s.[1] Scanning the publications that appear on the horizon with increasing frequency today, it seems that precisely the opposite might be the case. Every day, every week, every month, every quarter, the most widely read journals seem just now to vie with each other in telling us that the time for religion has returned, that secularism is a hallucination, that modernism has at last been found out and exploded. Of course, there remains a residual, instinctual secularism in the academic world, and we have every reason to think secular hegemony will continue. But if one bothers to get serious—to read the latest journals and lengthier tomes—religion has in countless ways "returned." As Talal Asad put it over a decade ago, "If anything is agreed upon [today], it is that a straightforward narrative of progress from the religious to the secular is no longer acceptable."[2]

That narrative, axiomatic for Auguste Comte, Karl Marx, Max Weber and Émile Durkheim, attempted to frame religion with a beginning (the mists of Paleolithic superstition), middle (the Middle Ages), and end (the modern "Age of Reason"). Certainly one characteristic of the current academic landscape is the need not merely to protest such an account but to replace it. The epoch of secular modernity may too have a beginning (the nominalist turn of the late Middle Ages), a middle (the epistemological avarice of the Enlightenment), and perhaps even something of an end. Each of the books attempting to tell this new story has stirred enormous debate, and weaknesses have been revealed. But the exposure of flaws has debugged, not discredited, these new post-secular narratives, resulting in accounts that make this fresh telling of our time grow more convincing still.

The latest of these tomes is Thomas Pfau's Minding the Modern: Human Agency, Intellectual Traditions, and Responsible Knowledge (Notre Dame University Press, 2013). Pfau, an expert in the literature of Romanticism, is Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of English at Duke University, where he is also a professor of German, where he also shares a secondary appointment at Duke Divinity School. Viz., like Charles Taylor (A Secular Age) and Brad Gregory (The Unintended Reformation), Pfau is a man equipped for the enormous cartographic task of remapping the rise of modernity. Sweeping narrative retellings such as Pfau's are frequently accused of being unfocused, tangential, historically selective, or insufficiently edited. Pfau, however, deftly avoids dilettantism by never quite leaving his realm of professional training even while he ranges widely beyond it. Which is to say, Minding the Modern is no history, nor is Pfau a historian. Instead, it is an extended, historically grounded close reading of texts that an accomplished literature professor is well equipped to provide. As he puts it, "any account of competing or intersecting intellectual traditions has to rest on the kind of close, textual analysis that, at its best, has always been the bread and butter of literary studies." Such an approach enables Pfau to seamlessly move, for example, between Shaftsbury and Heidegger, Augustine and Arendt, Levinas and Cardinal Newman, or Marion and Aquinas, on the same page. This stems not from indecision but from a premeditated attempt to intertwine historical and philosophical, or horizontal and vertical, approaches with a sustained argument. In addition, Pfau focuses his wide-ranging account by choosing the (admittedly enormous) category of human personhood, and its corollaries of will and agency, as the vehicle in which he takes his tour of the ages. His express aim is "to capture the intrinsic idea of will and person through a series of forensic readings of representative arguments." We cannot defend the threatened humanities, Pfau's account suggests, without tracing the conceptual history of the term "human." When researchers in the humanities attempt to generate yet another methodological "theory," further subdivide their already narrow subject areas, or sell out to the mania for professionalization to impress their bureaucratic overlords, they demonstrate a failure of confidence before the more amply funded, information-based sciences. Humanistic inquiry instead requires "sustained immersion in a many-layered past composed of intellectual genealogies and their often conflicting lines of transmission," which is precisely what Minding the Modern provides.

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