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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
684 pp., $125.00

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Matthew J. Milliner


A Secular Age 2.0

Thomas Pfau and the irreducible mystery of personhood.

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Pfau demonstrates that by selecting certain classical developments and refusing others, the medieval epoch developed a coherent account of personhood by never reducing personhood to coherence—by maintaining a certain reverence before the mystery of human agency that could never be adequately explained. Such an understanding of personhood offered the breakthrough insight in Trinitarian reflection, which is to say, theology remains the queen of the sciences in this English professor's investigation (a pattern that other non-theologians would do well to follow). "Proving" this sense of personhood is no easier than "proving" the existence of God. In neither case is proof possible, at least on the shriveled criteria of later Enlightenment rationality. Considering this heavy dose of eloquent reverence before indefinable realities, Augustine and Aquinas are the high-water marks of Pfau's account. But with the advent of nominalism, something of a constriction took place—a shrinking of previously more spacious contours of reflection.

Pfau's account of late medieval developments relies on a close reading of primary sources in the original languages, especially William of Ockham, making his narrative far harder for specialists to dismiss. Carefully avoiding wholesale condemnation of John Duns Scotus, Pfau nevertheless deftly isolates the critical shortcoming of the "univocal" move (conceiving of God and creatures under una voce, one voice). Namely, "its obliviousness to the fact that that the fundamental act of human intelligence … unfolds in essentially different ways when it engages divine or finite matters, respectively." Hence God becomes a " 'thing' in himself …. He becomes a First Cause, the supreme 'substance' or 'power' essentially continuous with a world now conceived less as complex and infinitely variegated divine order than as an inventory of discrete things to be tabulated and appropriated at will." Or more succinctly, "Cosmos becomes nature." And within this new atmosphere, the luscious grape of Augustine's sense of will as an "enduring and all-pervading substratum of personhood" withers into an unappealing raisin: The "non-transparent and non-cognitive will that can only be known or unmasked after it has projected itself into social and political spaces."

Pfau's assessment of the superiority of classical Christian accounts is what gives Minding the Modern a flavor similar to that of other formidable narrative sweeps such as Taylor's or Gregory's. He thereby might seem to fall under one of the most common—and most tedious—critiques of such books, that they are "nostalgic," as if to appreciate patristic and medieval thought is to be insufficiently grateful for penicillin, air conditioning, or democratic progress. Leaving aside the fact that such an accusation affords evidence that said critics have not seriously engaged the texts in question,[3] Pfau further demonstrates that the nostalgia critique is itself helplessly enmeshed within the assumptions of modernity:

To address [the nostalgia] question—likely to be raised about any account critical of the modern project—one should probably begin by clarifying what nostalgia is ordinarily taken to mean, and what its conceptual premises are. The longing for a past plenitude, as indeed the supposition that it had once existed, rests on two closely related assumptions: first, that historical time is linear rather than cyclical, monochrome in its forward motion rather than recursive and imbued with various kinds of "higher time" or spikes of semantic intensity. For it is this premise that sanctions the axiom of "loss" without which there could not be any nostalgic affect. Second, nostalgia implies that our relationship to the past is one of disaffection, even terminal estrangement, a premise borne out by the self-certifying affect of "longing" at the heart of nostalgia. Yet precisely these premises also show nostalgia to be a distinctively modern phenomenon inasmuch as it acquiesces in the modern (historicist) view of time as a monochrome vector pointing toward the future, which renders the past as strictly passé, that is, as sheer inventory to be, perhaps, objectively known but most definitely incapable of signifying for (let alone transforming) us.
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