The book blog

October 23rd, 2014

Ancient questions for modern answers

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The central contrast in Thomas Pfau’s rich and rewarding book, Minding the Modern, is between two radically opposed views of human agency. The first is the “classical view of human agency” that was first formulated by Plato and Aristotle and which was given a particularly powerful expression in the works of St. Thomas Aquinas. According to this view, to do something is to deliberately act on some conception of the good; the telos of agency is reached only by our conscious participation in the permanent and rational order of things. The second and opposing view of human agency, which Pfau describes as the modern or naturalistic view, goes back to William of Ockham but was given its most influential articulation by Thomas Hobbes and David Hume. According to this view, human action is just behavior that is caused by a desire and accompanied by some thought about how to realize that desire in the world.

Read Ancient questions for modern answers.
October 17th, 2014

Stacking the deck: Thomas Pfau’s strange history of the West

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Imagine that you’ve been invited to play a game of cards with Thomas Pfau and his cards are called Justice, Reason, Beauty, Humanism, Purpose, and Value, while yours are called Interest, Materialism, Naturalism, Historicism, Value-Neutrality, attributes of a World without Grace and without Narrative. Who wins? But why should you let Pfau have all those cards, especially with names like Justice, Reason, and Beauty, or the names he adds later“free choice, conscience, person, teleology…judgment…and, for that matter, art”; and why are you stuck with Interest and Materialism? This is a little bit what it’s like to read Thomas Pfau’s Minding the Modern. In the space I have, I will argue that Pfau has stacked the deck.

Read Stacking the deck: Thomas Pfau’s strange history of the West.
October 9th, 2014

Losing sight of reason

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Thomas Pfau has created a brand new narrative, not a scholarly book. In the best Christian traditio renovanda (renewing tradition), Pfau’s narrative is an ambitious project to delve into the most loathsome and putrid foundations of modernity and its development. At the same time, Minding the Modern reconstructs an ideal alternative world-to-come based on solid Thomistic solutions. The “road not taken” by the West, which is dooming its own present and its future, appears at its best.

Pfau never portrays modernity as being specifically loathsome and putrid. Instead, he describes modernity as a “catastrophe,” a “shipwreck,” “discontinuous,” “dystopic,” “a failure to remember,” “traumatic,” etc. It is clear from the beginning of the book that Pfau is neither supportive of, nor sympathetic to, modernity. His narrative is not intended to provide a neutral, objective, and academic understanding of modernity, but rather a demolishing and biased critique of it; yet another one from a decidedly Catholic perspective.

Read Losing sight of reason.
October 9th, 2014

Mindful love: On Thomas Pfau’s critical appropriation of Thomist moral theory

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Thomas Pfau’s book Minding the Modern is a book of immense scope. About half the work (parts II and III) consists of an ambitious historical genealogy. The other half (the prolegomena and part IV) presents a sustained philosophical argument about human personhood and moral agency. Although Pfau places the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge at the center of his examination of modernity, the conceptual protagonist of the book is Thomas Aquinas, whose theory of moral agency is seen to afford a robust account of human freedom that is grounded in rational volition: free decisions based on human conscience, practical judgment, teleological aims toward natural goods, virtuous choice making.

Read Mindful love: On Thomas Pfau’s critical appropriation of Thomist moral theory.
May 14th, 2014

In defense of the fragment

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Richard Madsen has done me the favor of reading my book carefully and sympathetically. He points out that the complexity of comparative analysis increases immensely when one does away with assuming unified cultural wholes. The kinds of narratives that were built in the past on the assumption of unified wholes have become impossible, and with them the kind of theorizing that characterized comparative analysis. In the view of many scholars, that means an end to comparative analysis. How can one do comparison of shifting, disintegrating social and cultural realities? How can one compare India and China when one respects the fragmentary nature of society?

Read In defense of the fragment.
May 8th, 2014

Modern spirits

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The Modern Spirit of Asia is like a brilliant pencil sketch for an uncompleted oil painting. Something inspiring appears in abstract, but the necessary shading hasn’t been done, and any effort at further illumination will necessarily transform what is depicted. The book traces in provocative outline the recent histories of India and China, arguing that neither formulations of modernity were merely derivative or defective imitations of the West, and that the degree of colonial encounter entwined religion and nationalism differently for each. While its larger goals are admirable, it fails to justify them by doing truly original research or rigorous theorizing. I agree with many of Peter van der Veer’s conclusions, but I fear that anyone who isn’t already singing from the same hymnal isn’t going to be converted.

Read Modern spirits.
May 5th, 2014

Looking back while hurtling forward

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At a time when the late twentieth century giants of comparative social science—like S.N. Eisenstadt and Robert Bellah—have recently passed away and when most of the younger generation of social scientists are preoccupied with narrowly focused research questions, it is heartening to see Peter van der Veer reviving the great tradition of comparative inquiry into the cultural origins and consequences of modernity. The Modern Spirit of Asia is an ambitious book that sets a new standard (and a hard standard to meet!) for comparative studies of religion and modernity. The level of erudition is impressive, but unlike the work of most comparative historical sociologists of an earlier era, the knowledge of historical documents is undergirded by an experiential, ethnographic knowledge of the languages and cultures of India and China (as well as extensive knowledge of European languages). Beset by pressures for specialization and for rapid and steady “productivity,” younger scholars will find it difficult to reach the level of scholarship displayed in this book.

Read Looking back while hurtling forward.
April 30th, 2014

Comparing China and India

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The Modern Spirit of Asia is a book about India and China and the ways in which they have been transformed by Western imperial modernity. In my understanding, the onset of modernity is located in the nineteenth century and is characterized politically by the emergence of the nation-state, economically by industrialization, and ideologically by an emphasis on progress and liberation; “imperial modernity” is the formation of modernity under conditions of imperialism. This book is an essay in comparative historical sociology, informed by anthropological theory. Comparative historical sociology of culture is a field that was founded by Max Weber and practiced by his followers, of whom the late Robert Bellah and the late S.N. Eisenstadt are among the best known. It has been connected to interpretive anthropological theory and to insights gained in ethnography, especially in the work of Clifford Geertz.

Read Comparing China and India.
February 27th, 2014

Contents and discontents of (post)modernity

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The Unintended Reformation is an unusual work of history in deliberately focusing as much on the present as on the past, and in emphasizing the ongoing importance of the Reformation era for understanding the Western world today. Having considered issues related to the book’s genre, method, and assumptions in the first part of my response and others related to its historical arguments and omissions in the second part, the principal focus here will be the reactions of the forum participants to my description and assessment of the present. I will also take up speculation about my supposed agenda, and the book’s lack of ideas for solving contemporary problems.

Read Contents and discontents of (post)modernity.
February 7th, 2014

Historical arguments and omissions

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A number of the forum reviewers raise objections to various aspects of the historical arguments in The Unintended Reformation. Others criticize me for having neglected what they regard as important omissions that adversely affect the book’s arguments. I will consider each of these sorts of criticisms in turn. Many of these critiques derive from the difficulty of keeping in mind that the book’s structure—a function of its method, which follows from its explanatory purpose as discussed in the first part of my response—distributes phenomena from the same historical era across six chapters rather than keeping them together. In combination with the necessarily compressed exposition, which also derives from the method, this sometimes results in readers not heeding or forgetting what is incorporated elsewhere in the book.

Read Historical arguments and omissions.
January 21st, 2014

Genre, method, and assumptions

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More than 60 reviews of The Unintended Reformation have appeared since January 2012, including forums in four journals (Historically Speaking, Church History, Catholic Historical Review, Pro Ecclesia), in addition to the multiple sessions that have been devoted to the book at professional conferences. The responses here at The Immanent Frame add another ten. I am grateful to my colleagues for their responses, to Jonathan VanAntwerpen and The Immanent Frame for hosting them, and for the opportunity to reply. I am gratified the work has provoked discussion and debate that shows little sign of abating. I am also pleased that most reviewers have acknowledged the book’s ambition and erudition, and that some regard it as an important analysis of modern Western history comparable to Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age or Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Less satisfying (although not unpredictable) has been the ways in which the book has been misread, misunderstood, and misrepresented by some reviewers, including some respondents here.

Read Genre, method, and assumptions.
December 2nd, 2013

A Kingdom that no longer says Whatever

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As a scholar working and living in the Netherlands, I apparently live in a state of affairs in which disinterested moral disorder reigns: “Whatever the particular country in which they happen to reside, all Westerners now live in the Kingdom of Whatever.” According to Brad Gregory, our present is the endpoint of a process through which we have come to lose “any shared or even convergent view about what ‘we’ think.” The result is a condition in which the grounds for morality might altogether disappear. Or, in more colloquial terms, this lack of a moral framework leads to an attitude of disinterest: “Whatever.”

I suspect that in Gregory’s view the Netherlands must be a prime example of the Kingdom of Whatever. The influence of the Reformation has nestled itself so deep in the soul of the country that Calvinist capitalist frugality and boundless moral liberalism have well-nigh become synonymous with Dutch national character.

Or at least, so the narrative goes.

Read A Kingdom that no longer says Whatever.
November 26th, 2013

Beyond the Catholic-Protestant divide

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The epigraph of Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation comes from an essay that Jacques Maritain wrote for the Review of Politics in 1942 entitled “The End of Machiavellianism.” In it, Maritain evinces some of his own realist, even tragic sensibilities—his hunch that human beings often do not deliver on the grand promises that they make, and that what may have appeared so good long, long ago can bear rotten fruit centuries later. Although tracing the distant and historical causes of contemporary problems can be like trying to identify “in a river’s mouth,” as Maritain writes, “which waters come from which glaciers and which tributaries,” if we are to have any chance of understanding ourselves, the work cannot be avoided. The epigraph offers a glimpse into Gregory’s intentions and his inspiration, and it helps explain why he would read his area of specialization, the Reformation, in darker terms than some of his American colleagues. For Jacques Maritain, the Protestant reformers set in motion the modern, rationalist thinking that severed the ontological bonds between the realness of the world and the intellectual capacities of the knower. For Gregory, the tragedy of the Reformation was not the content of the reformers’ ideas but the unsolved and unsatisfying contestations between Catholics and Protestants.

Read Beyond the Catholic-Protestant divide.
November 6th, 2013

History without hermeneutics: Brad Gregory’s unintended modernity

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I would like to draw attention to three aspects of Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation, a book whose courage and ambition I applaud, if for no other reason than that it exemplifies what an engaged form of historiography (and humanistic inquiry more generally) can and should do. The first aspect has to do with the commercialization and commodification of knowledge in post-Reformation modernity and how it impacts advanced inquiry today. From it follows my second concern, which lies with the indebtedness of Gregory’s own narrative to the fruits of modern, disciplinary and specialized inquiry. Finally, I wish to take up the question of whether Gregory’s historiographical approach might be seriously compromised by the apparent absence of a focused hermeneutical engagement with the major voices (theological, philosophical, political, economic, etc.) widely credited with shaping the landscape of post-Reformation modernity, both secular and religious.

Read History without hermeneutics: Brad Gregory’s unintended modernity.
October 24th, 2013

Beyond supersessionist stories?

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Brad Gregory’s monumental and erudite book has yielded a wide range of reactions. Highly appreciative remarks (especially from the Catholic side) are countered by rather dismissive, sometimes even venomous reviews (by Ian Hunter, James Chappel, Mark Lilla, and others), as well as by more balanced critiques (those of Peter Gordon, Victoria Kahn, and Adrian Pabst, for instance). I will not dwell on the details of these divergent opinions; I would instead like to focus on the question of whether or not The Unintended Reformation is a genuine work of history. More specifically, I would like to tackle two questions: (1) What is meant precisely by the term “a supersessionist model” of historical narrative in contrast to “genealogical history”? And (2) does Gregory succeed in writing a study in genealogical or analytical history, as he claims to do, or is The Unintended Reformation itself an example of supersessionist historiography, albeit in reverse? My answer is based primarily on a comparison between Gregory’s book and Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, which are often mentioned in the same breath (cf. Lilla, Hunter, Pabst).

Read Beyond supersessionist stories?.
October 16th, 2013

Conceptualizing pluralism and consensus in the modern Western world

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Without pointing out those places where I agree with Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation, I would like to add a qualification to his claim that the modern Western world is correctly described as “hyperpluralistic.” The term “hyperpluralism” is sometimes used in socio-political discourse to refer to the fragmentation of political interest groups and the resulting challenges associated with forming coalitions. Gregory, however, often writes about “contemporary Western hyperpluralism with respect to truth claims about meaning, morality, values, priorities, and purpose.” He thus uses the term in a more general sense, which includes moral, philosophical, cultural, political and theological aspects.

Read Conceptualizing pluralism and consensus in the modern Western world.
September 24th, 2013

Secular supercessionism and alternative modernity

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Recent years have seen the resurgence of “metahistories” that seek to provide a single complex narrative of seemingly disparate events and developments. Among the most prominent contemporary accounts are Marcel Gauchet’s La condition historique (2005), Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007) and Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution (2011). In different ways, all three offer an overarching story of how the distant past—whether the emergence of the modern state or the rise of secular unbelief as a default position or cultural capacities driving religious development—continues to shape the present. Brad S. Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation is another such ambitious attempt, charting the way in which Protestantism unwittingly invented the capitalism and secular liberalism that together constitute our current condition.

Read Secular supercessionism and alternative modernity.
September 16th, 2013

Get over it

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In many ways, the argument of Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation is a familiar one. Gregory aims to explain our modern condition genealogically, by tracing the “hyperpluralism” of modern religious and secular commitments to the Protestant Reformation. The unintended consequence of the Reformation was the proliferation of individual truth claims that led to the proto-liberal separation of church and state. Univocal metaphysics and Occam’s razor (the principle of explanatory parsimony) simultaneously brought God within the same ontological order as creation and led to the “exclusion of God” from scientific explanations of the natural world. Once empirical science became the new standard of truth, the metaphysical rug was pulled out from under religion and morality: belief and value became subjective and relative, leaving individuals with no standard by which to adjudicate conflicting truth claims. In the place of a substantive “virtue ethics” of the Good, some early modern thinkers began to advocate a formal, individualist ethic of rights.

Read Get over it.