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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What such a passage shows, beyond evidencing the lucid erudition that characterizes Minding the Modern in its entirely, is that Pfau is less nostalgic than stubborn—insisting matters remain open that modern discourse assumed, by fiat, to be passé. Indeed, modernity frequently conveyed the impression that certain traditions had been responsibly disassembled and exposed, when in fact they were merely discarded with an appeal to fashion. Descartes never refuted Aristotle as much as he dismissed him, and Kant never showed classical metaphysics to be empirically false, as much as he insisted we accept his alternate premises from the outset (which so many did). Pfau thereby aims to resume conversations about the human person that modernity, without genuine warrant and not without extended protest, managed to forget. Instead of nostalgia then, Pfau offers a "lucid and articulate mourning" for the conceptual amnesia that characterizes recent times. Modernity then, for Pfau, is "less a decisive break than a prolonged failure to remember traditions, legacies, and debts that, however unrecognized or repressed, continue to operate with undiminished efficacy."

By attempting to argue for, as oppose to simply resurrect, forgotten traditions, Pfau avoids the puzzling fatalism of another noteworthy cartographer of modernity, Louis Dupré, whose Passage to Modernity ends by claiming that the modern cultural shift had a "definitive and irreversible impact that transform[ed] the very essence of reality."[4] For Dupré, "past thought cannot solve modern problems …. It may assist us in sorting out modern issues, but it does not provide ready answers. Modern culture has introduced a totally new way of confronting the real."[5] But Pfau—well aware of Dupré's account—offers us anything but a dry neo-Thomist evasion. The Cambridge Platonists, John Henry Newman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and above all the contemporary philosophical project of phenomenology, together "seek to lead the modern self out of the methodological dead-end," especially by witnessing to the persistent mystery of personhood. Hence, Augustine is described as "proto-phenomenological." For Pfau, just to "invoke the term 'person' at all is to confront a pervasive ethical miscarriage of modernity—and to do so precisely by remembering a term whose complex history and normative authority the modern era had forgotten at its own peril."

To explain this "dramatic contraction" from the Christian Platonist synthesis to modernity traced by Pfau, it may be helpful to track a series of concepts and what occurs to them as they migrate into modernism. The idea of space, for example, goes from pleroma (fullness) to emptiness. Reason goes from participating in truth (reason per se) to producing of truth (reasoning), and knowledge becomes less a phenomenon of disclosure than an object of possession, viz., the neutral and instrumental "information" so celebrated today. Thinking shifts from Aristotelian phronesis (practical rationality) to mere curiosity, and is propelled less by judgment than by "method." Habit, once understood as synderesis, the benevolent patterns that imbue intelligence and free the mind for contemplation, becomes mindless repetition. Time becomes less epiphanic than merely linear, and history less a story of timeless validity than a sequence of anonymous events. And, to zero in on Pfau's primary concerns, human action morphs from something meaningful to mere "behavior" or performative self-enactment. The self, once in flux towards a telos, is merely in flux. Human affairs, once marked by frailty, are now marked chiefly by uncertainty. The will, once related intimately to the intellect and even being a Trinitarian vestige in the human soul, becomes a blind and unselfconscious compulsion. The human person, no longer a mystery that is necessarily in relationship, becomes the familiar "autonomous individual" of modern times. Once again, to offer such a resume is not at all to suggest its inevitability, an impression sometimes given in the more Hegelian, "where we are now" moments in other accounts. Instead, Pfau tells such a story in order to break its hold.

Yet there is a final, and perhaps more serious concern with grand narratives that I am describing, namely that they insufficiently account for plurality. It is perhaps not coincidental, for example, that Gregory, Taylor, and Pfau are all Roman Catholic. Why, furthermore, if the Middle Ages had such a superior account of personhood, did it frequently do such a miserable job of defending the personhood of those beyond Catholicism? And while it would be unfair to suggest (as some have) that Gregory aims to return civilization to the medieval arrangement, his choice to center his account around the unintended consequences of Protestantism have, not surprisingly, frustrated some readers sympathetic to his new narrative who happen to not be Catholic. Pfau is not immune to this criticism. Indeed, he condemns the "anti-institutional, fideist hyper-Augustinianism of seventeenth century Puritanism, Jansensim, early eighteenth century German Pietism, and … evangelical and Pentecostal denominationalism of the early nineteenth century [SIC]" as all doomed by late medieval developments. Even if some Protestant conceptions of the will leave much to be desired, this remains a sloppy conflation within an otherwise supremely careful account.

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