Here I will argue that Thomas Pfau’s presentation of modernity in Minding the Modern fails to incorporate both the sociopolitical dimensions of modernity’s emergence and its positive aspects. He sees modernity as the home of the “modern subject” of the Western world, or the “quintessentially modern, solitary individual” in his “palpable melancholy,” both “altogether adrift” and without “interpersonal relations.” Stanley Hauerwas captures the sense of the book in his endorsement: “Pfau locates the philosophical developments that contributed to the agony of the modern mind. Moreover, he helps us see why many who exemplify that intellectual stance do not recognize their own despair.” Pfau thus offers a challenge to those whom he sometimes calls the “modern apologists of secular, liberal, Enlightenment society.”
Posts Tagged ‘modernity’
Let me start with a confession. I am not particularly keen on stories of modernity in which “modernity” figures as a character and in which the plot—surprise—entails a “fall” or “break.” Thomas Pfau’s Minding the Modern is a long telling of this tale, containing some wonderfully astute scenes and bringing on stage two of my favorite thinkers, John Locke and Theodor Adorno (the first appearing as a culprit and the second as an ally). I am not unmoved by Pfau’s convictions and arguments that what appears to be human advancement is actually decline (325). Nonetheless, I find myself appreciating the worldliness and ostentatiousness of Adorno’s miniaturized version of this story: “No universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb.” Pfau frames his argument as an exploration of and possible solution to the crisis in the humanities. For him, that crisis is not the devaluation of humanistic study in a context of the corporatization of higher education and intense competition for scarce and unstable employment. Rather, it is his sense that we are suffering through a case of amnesia.
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.
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.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the wider Islamist movement of which it is an instance, are in many ways a secular phenomenon. If we define “secularity” not only as the weakening of religious belief, but also as the idea that faith becomes one option among others; and “secularization” as the process of institutional and functional differentiation of modern state structures and the resultant marginalization of religious authority, then the Brotherhood, similarly to other Islamist entities, can be seen as a product of modernity and the “secular age.” This transpires in two ways. First, for the Brotherhood, “Islam” is an identifiable set of beliefs that can be actively implemented and used as guidelines to reform society. Second, the parameters of the political order it proposes are defined by the context of the secular, modern nation-state.
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.
The stern visage of Max Weber looms over discussions of modernity and enchantment, as does the sunnier countenance of Charles Taylor. Perhaps they should be joined by the open faced, bluntly spoken, and allegedly poker wielding Ludwig Wittgenstein. This choice might seem counter-intuitive. Wittgenstein did not write much about enchantment, and is more often considered a disenchanter who used the tools of philosophy to dispel illusions brought about by linguistic misuse. As he wrote, “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”
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.
For Tricycle, an independent Buddhist publication, Linda Heuman interviews David McMahan, scholar of Buddhism and modernity, and author of The Making of Buddhist Modernism.
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.