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.
The story Pfau tells is familiar, most recently from Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue and his later Whose Justice? Which Rationality? One story in the book is a tale of two parallel visions of human personhood and agency, informed by Aristotelian and Thomistic notions of the will and intellect as oriented towards the good or God. The other is an incoherent, diminished view of agency and personhood that is the logical consequence of the nominalist break with the Thomistic view of the universe. In the first vision, which Pfau also calls “Christian-Platonic,” the will and appetite are rational, emotions are “quasi-cognitive,” knowledge involves participating in reason or the divine logos, and nature is informed by grace. This vision, in Pfau’s account, has elicited “sustained intellectual engagement for nearly 2,500 years”—a fact that, Pfau claims, in an odd conflation of the empirical and normative, “furnishes prima facie evidence of its truth value.” In the second vision, the will is untethered from any conception of divinely ordained cosmic order and rational participation in the divine logos, with the result that meaning is constructed or imposed rather than found; nature is viewed no longer as a manifestation of divine order to be admired but rather as a contingent collection of discrete entities, to be mastered or used; and philosophy excludes all questions of value, commitment and final causes, with the result that it is incapable of correlating thought and existence, life and action.
The other story is not one of two parallel visions, but rather a narrative of decline in which the first vision is gradually replaced by the second. Beginning with William of Ockham, but even more with Thomas Hobbes in the seventeenth century, human beings are imagined as discrete individuals, bound together by no common nature or common purpose, motivated by irrational desires rather than rational deliberation. Reason is not a faculty whose inherent telos is the good but instead an instrument of calculation, a machine for maximizing self-interest. At the same time, the divorce between will and intellect leads to the triumph of what Hannah Arendt called “homo faber,” a creature who elevates mere labor above action (as Aristotle conceived it), doing above thinking, and who is both the contributor to and product of the new, proto-capitalist economy celebrated by Bernard Mandeville, Daniel Defoe, and Adam Smith. With the exception of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, it’s all downhill from there.
Responding to the dilemmas of voluntarism, later figures, including Immanuel Kant, can provide no compelling motivation or reason for subscribing to their accounts of morality. “As a result, the intellectual and spiritual curiosity of individuals and societies appears to atrophy to the point that questions concerning ends are themselves marginalized as eccentric and more or less irrational.” The “atrophy of ends” then sets the stage for the subjectivist and emotivist concept of religion in the nineteenth century that puts mere opinion or private judgment (Cardinal Newman) in the place of a strenuous notion of faith. Worse still is the confusion regarding the notions of rights, action and freedom, which are “rendered incoherent by the ways in which the liberal-secular nation-state tends to deploy them.”
What would it mean to be persuaded of Pfau’s argument in the twenty-first century? If we accept the story of historical decline, it’s hard to see a remedy: we can’t return to the era of Thomas Aquinas. This is why it is important for Pfau to insist that there are really two parallel visions of moral personhood even now. Only in this way can he keep open the neo-Thomist possibility for us today. But even if we accept the story of two parallel visions, it’s hard to know how a liberal could move from the putatively incoherent liberal vision to the coherent neo-Thomist one, given Pfau’s claim that deliberation in liberalism simply involves arbitrary moral choices. Pfau’s own goal of persuading his liberal antagonist, in other words, entails a performative contradiction insofar as it suggests that he thinks liberals, like others, are capable of responding to reasoned argument.
Let me now turn to the chapter on Hobbes, who has a central role to play in the argument of the book. Here is the place to note the remarkable absence of historical context in Minding the Modern. This may be a virtue in Pfau’s mind, given his attack on historicism, but it produces an odd version of intellectual history. Ideas speak to each other across centuries, but apart from repeated references to the growth of commercial society in the eighteenth century and a few dates like 1688 and 1848, one would never know that people develop ideas in response to concrete social and political problems. This is particularly the case in the Hobbes chapter, where Pfau betrays scant consciousness that Hobbes was writing in the midst of the English civil war. Strangely and unaccountably, then, in Pfau’s account, Hobbes has a materialist/mechanist view of human nature as a composite of inchoate desires and feral passions. Of course, if you leave out the reasons for Hobbes’s description of human nature, then Hobbes can be described—like other liberals—as incapable of giving reasons for his “practices, values, and commitments.” Against Pfau, I would argue that Hobbes’s account of human nature is clearly a rhetorical fiction designed to persuade his readers to assent to his account of political authority in a time of civil war. If you want to persuade people to lay down their arms, you need to speak to them about their passions and interests, not their vertical relationship to the divine logos (which Hobbes clearly thought was the source of civil unrest in the first place).
One of Pfau’s main claims about Hobbes is that he defines the will as “unsublatable” by reason. I would suggest, in contrast, that this sublation is precisely what Hobbes achieves in Leviathan. According to Pfau, Hobbes equates reason with “decision,” to the exclusion of deliberation. Elsewhere, Pfau declares that Hobbesian power is incommensurable with rational contemplation and thinking. Both these claims are incorrect. First, Hobbes’s account of reasoning is precisely distinguished by the labor of deliberation. As he writes in chapter 5 of Leviathan, “Reason is not as Sense, and Memory, borne with us; nor gotten by Experience onely, as Prudence is; but attained by Industry, first in apt imposing of Names; and secondly by getting a good and orderly Method in proceeding….” Equally to the point, Leviathan presents a rational argument for why individuals should consent to transfer their rights to a sovereign. In the introduction to Leviathan, Hobbes makes it clear that individuals disagree about the appropriate ends of action, and in chapter 13 he makes it clear that the best metaphor for this disagreement is the bellicose and fearful state of nature. Only by reasoning about this condition can we come to understand why it might be in our interest to cede our rights to a single political authority who is able to guarantee peace. Second, Hobbesian power is not incommensurable with rational deliberation but precisely dependent on it. The power of the sovereign is both constituted by and made legitimate through consent to the political contract.
From a certain perspective, Pfau is right that Hobbes is trying to dismantle Platonic-Aristotelian-Christian notions of a single, transcendent good. In Hobbes’s view, disagreement about this transcendent good is what produced civil war. By contrast, a sovereign will permit us to pursue our individual visions of the good or, in Hobbes’s vocabulary, the objects of our hopes and desires. By using this vocabulary, Hobbes does not insist that there is no such thing as a vision of the good; he simply means that we do all not agree on what the good is and that to force our vision on other citizens produces civil war. Of course, this insight is not new to Hobbes. The insight into the essentially contested nature of the good, the true, and the just, lies at the heart of Greek culture and especially Greek tragedy, which presents a very different view of our relationship than does Aristotle, even in the Poetics.
It might be that Pfau would reply here, as Alasdair MacIntyre does in Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, that tragedy can reveal the conflict between rival views of the good but that this conflict can only be adjudicated by philosophy or theology. In my view, however, this sacrifice of literature on the altar of philosophy or theology considered as putatively higher discourses would be an odd view for a literary historian to take. Minimally, it would reveal a very impoverished view of the kinds of cultural artifacts we can draw on as we seek to make moral sense of the world we inhabit.
Finally, I want to comment on the surprising absence in the book of Baruch Spinoza, the great favorite of Coleridge. Although the discussion of Coleridge occupies 200 out of the 618 pages of text, Pfau can only find room to mention Spinoza in two clauses. It may seem peevish to complain about the absence of a single figure when Pfau has given us such extensive interpretations of so many other great figures in the Western tradition, but the absence is telling. Spinoza—who is very often seen as a forerunner of liberal political theory—quite simply does not fit Pfau’s characterization of secular liberalism. He also does not fit into Pfau’s narrative of two stories or two visions, one focused on immanence, the other on transcendence, one materialist and mechanist, the other spiritual; one that is present-oriented and neglects tradition, the other that attends to history and hermeneutics. Spinoza famously disrupts these dichotomies, not least of all by offering us a model of immanence as transcendence. In doing so, he contests one of Pfau’s central tropes. Throughout the book, Pfau castigates what he describes as “horizontal comradeship” in favor of a vertical orientation to the divine. Apparently, there’s only one form of transcendence in the world, the transcendence provided by what Pfau calls “Platonic and Christian thought.” But, as Spinoza might say, what’s transcendence from one perspective is immanence from another. In this respect, Spinoza looks forward to eighteenth-century and modern theories of life as self-organizing—a paradigm Pfau refers to as “emergentist” but that has also been called auto-poiesis or plasticity. According to this paradigm, norms are not rooted in “transcendent sources” of value, as Pfau claims. Rather, norms emerge from within complex social and biological systems. Pfau criticizes John McDowell’s account of our rational capacities as a second nature within human nature, as well as his “oddly dogmatic rejection of understanding the world as ‘gift’ and the human person as categorically distinct from our species.” But one could turn this objection back to Pfau: Pfau’s oddly dogmatic rejection of McDowell’s argument, along with his oddly dogmatic assertion of the existence of the divine logos, prove that, in his case, too, “his commitments clearly outrun his arguments.” This is probably inevitable, no matter what one’s commitments are.
Ultimately, I think, Pfau’s argument comes down to providing reasons for faith. I admire him for engaging in debate and providing reasons. But, in his account as in so many others, there is only one right faith and one right reason. In contrast, I believe that it’s possible to tell an alternative story of the transition to modernity, one that emphasizes immanence rather than transcendence, epistemological modesty rather than participation in the divine logos, tolerance rather than a uniform, divinely ordained good. I would rather live in this world of epistemological modesty and tolerance than in his world. In my world, there is a place for people who believe as Pfau does. In his world, there is no place at all for people like me.