Some readers of Minding the Modern have been surprised to find my account so firmly critical of Thomas Hobbes on will and personhood. Now, it is both incidental and inevitable that my reading challenges recent attempts to claim Hobbes as a precursor of modern liberalism and individualism. Long before me, of course, a wide and diverse array of thinkers (Hannah Arendt, Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, John Milbank, Louis Dupré, Michael Oakeshott) had probed the conceptual weakness of modern Liberalism, particularly its propensity to expire in an omnipresent state, putatively enlightened and benevolent as it orders and controls individual and social life at every level. If my reading of Hobbes casts doubt on some of modern Liberalism’s cherished axioms and aspirations, this only points to a certain lack of discernment among those who would identify Hobbes as a heroic precursor of an enlightened, secular, and liberal politics, of whose lasting benefits they remain unshakably persuaded. That said, political theory is not a principal concern of Minding the Modern, whereas putting analytic pressure on modern philosophy’s assumptions about human agency, rationality, and volition very much is.
Posts Tagged ‘agency’
I should thank the organizers at The Immanent Frame for hosting a forum on Minding the Modern and all respondents for their participation. As expected, the forum has not just yielded considerably divergent appraisals, but has also revealed respondents’ often strikingly disparate assumptions about what it means to engage a large-scale intellectual narrative. Clearly, to proffer such a narrative is a risky proposition in an academic environment characterized by ever more minute forms of specialization and by an often proprietary view of the knowledge produced under such conditions. Since restrictions of space make it impossible for me to address each response with the detail that one might wish for, a broader, thematic approach seems the best alternative. Hence my response to the various statements posted at this forum will be divided into three parts: the editors of The Immanent Frame have kindly agreed to publish the first two parts of my response and to create a link to the third.
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.
Sean Dorrance Kelly is chair of Harvard University’s philosophy department and has published on topics like cognitive science, philosophy of mind, and aesthetics. For his first general-audience book, though, he teamed up with his former teacher Hubert Dreyfus and took on the Western canon. All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, published this year by Free Press, is a daring proposal for a new embrace of ancient polytheism. Looking back to the epics of Homer, they find resources for thwarting the nihilism that has haunted some of the most brilliant thinkers of our time. I spoke with Kelly over cappuccinos in a noisy Midtown Manhattan diner, while he was waiting to catch a train back up to Boston.
To grasp the deep architecture of the political today, therefore, is to venture into the theological domains of Christology and especially atonement, that area of theology (particularly, Christian theology) that deals with the logic of (redemptive) death. But the journey cannot be simply phenomenological in the way Kahn carries it out. Or, put differently, it may need to be phenomenological, but in a way that Kahn himself has not considered. Atonement thinking, and the “death contract” that binds politics, must, from within a different phenomenology (and therefore from within a different approach to political theology), be redirected. There must be a new future of death and the political.
Jane Bennett’s sympathetic yet critical commentary on my essay “What is Enchantment?” (published in the volume Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age) describes the notion of disenchantment that I present as primarily addressing the theological displacements that emerged with the rise of the new science. Her own work, she says, offers a quite different focus, one of a mood or affect that “circulates between human bodies and the animal, vegetable, and mineral forces they encounter.”
I don’t doubt that this interesting focus is quite different from mine, though I think it would be wrong to represent my view as being focused on the theological. In my analysis, the theological had only a central genealogical role to play in the process of “disenchantment.”