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.
Pfau does not leave us in much suspense about which of these two he favors—indeed, his frank and unrestrained polemic against the modern view gives Minding the Modern some of the qualities of a good novel. It is a gripping tale: a coherent and supple conception of human life is challenged by a dangerous and reductionist conception of agency that threatens to estrange us from the concepts we need to make sense of our own behavior. But the former conception is finally rescued by an unlikely hero, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who is able to show us the way back to what we have almost entirely lost. Although the focus on Coleridge might seem surprising or idiosyncratic at first, when one finally gets to the last major section of the book, it becomes clear that the entire narrative up to this point has been guided by Coleridge’s own understanding of the obstacles facing a recovery of the right conception of human agency. Indeed, Pfau’s reading of the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a true masterpiece of exegesis, one that manages to neatly summarize all the major themes of the book.
What is of deepest interest in Pfau’s narrative, though, is his radical diagnosis of the problems that face any attempt at a recovery of the classical view. For Pfau, we have lost not only those concepts through which we could make sense of our own agency, but also access to the very model of humanistic inquiry that could have revealed the historical genesis of our current, impoverished conceptions of agency. We have replaced a view of knowing as the contemplation of that objective order with a view of knowledge as “producing rational order by applying concepts…to a world seemingly devoid of rational order” (18). This places Minding the Modern under a double burden; it must both recover the classical view of agency, and defend and articulate its own approach to the history of ideas. The book’s careful and detailed reflection on its own methodological commitments gives it an importance that goes well beyond its specific historical claims and readings. Indeed, it is from this vantage point that we can best see both the achievements of Minding the Modern and, perhaps, its limitations.
Pfau’s own understanding of humanistic inquiry emphasizes the “trans-generational, hermeneutic activity intrinsic to conceptual activity” (33). He hopes to avoid two seemingly opposed dangers facing someone who is attempting to approach the history of ideas. The first is the attempt to abstract away from history entirely—this is to treat concepts as tools that each thinker devises for his own systematic purposes. This approach is driven by the foundationalist hope to arrive at some kind of self-certifying, deductive knowledge. The second is the attempt to thoroughly contextualize ideas—to view them as inherently limited to the social and political context in which they are deployed. If the former is overly foundationalist, the latter is prone to an anti-foundationalist skepticism about the possibility of truth at all. What they both share is a rejection of the cognitive relevance of the intellectual history of the concepts being examined.
The alternative approach Pfau recommends, which is developed in dialogue with Cardinal John Henry Newman and Hans-Georg Gadamer, aims to reconcile historicity and transcendental truth. Pfau theorizes concepts as “hermeneutic frames that evolve and are transformed by the ‘effective history’ of their application and contested and shifting interpretations put on them” (63). The idea is that we start with a relatively empty concept like the will or the person, and over time this concept gets applied under a variety of concrete circumstances which realize its meaning, allowing it to acquire depth and power. The sheer persistence and fecundity of an idea corroborate its truth-value by providing evidence of the idea’s indispensability for providing a coherent account of our lives. But concepts can also be lost or deformed in history, as notions of the will or person were in the early modern period. Minding the Modern is designed to help us understand why this happened, to determine whether this loss revealed the bankruptcy of these concepts or is merely evidence of what Pfau calls “progressive conceptual amnesia.”
Pfau’s narrative provides ample proof that this is a fruitful way of engaging with the history of ideas but it also, I think, points us to certain dangers. When Pfau looks over the history of Western philosophy, he sees a confrontation between two rival views of agency because he has assumed that everyone is arguing about the same thing. They are attempting to answer the same question (e.g. what is the will?) but coming to radically different answers (e.g. Aristotle’s “deliberative choice” or Hobbes’s “the last appetite”). This leads to Pfau’s failure to recognize that certain dimensions of the problem are new, that modern accounts of agency are devised in response to changing questions.
This can be illustrated with the case of Hobbes, who is the main antagonist of Pfau’s story. Pfau convincingly shows that Aristotle and Aquinas provide us with a better phenomenology of agency than Hobbes. But the very ease with which Pfau shows this suggests that a phenomenology of agency is not really what Hobbes was trying to provide. Pfau’s own attempts to explain what led Hobbes to develop a naturalistic theory of agency are unpersuasive; he seems to endorse the Coleridgean claim that modern mechanistic accounts of the will are “latter-day symptoms of lingering problems in philosophical theology” (438). According to Pfau, Hobbes’s view of agency is a secularization of Ockhamite voluntarist theology. Hobbes, however, never mentions Ockham; he does, though, frequently mention Galileo. It is much more plausible to think, with Leo Strauss among others, that Hobbes’s theory of agency is an answer to problems that emerged in the seventeenth century: in particular, how do we explain human behavior in light of the new non-teleological understanding of nature provided by post-Galilean science? Note that this is a new question: not one posed by Aristotle or Aquinas. It is easy to agree with Pfau that Hobbes overextended his own naturalistic account of agency, wrongly thinking that it showed the Aristotelian account of rational deliberation to be merely epiphenomenal. But one simply cannot do justice to modern naturalistic accounts of agency like that of Hobbes without recognizing that they deal with this new set of questions and concerns, questions with no ready-made Aristotelian answers. Because he does not acknowledge this, Pfau exempts himself from having to deal with the complicated problem of reconciling modern scientific views of nature with our belief in human freedom; instead he ends up anathematizing these naturalistic accounts as bad phenomenology rooted in bad theology.
It was not just modern science that presented Hobbes with new questions, but also modern politics. Pfau certainly acknowledges that Leviathan is a response to post-Reformation religious strife (187, f. 3), but he does not see why this might be crucial for understanding Hobbes’s account of agency, not just an interesting bit of historical background. Here the crucial fact is the discovery, not that people disagree about the telos of human life, which has surely always been known, but that reasonable, perfectly conscientious people tend to disagree in fundamental and irreconcilable ways about what is most important in life. If this is true, then you cannot solve the problem of political order by assuming convergence around questions of the human good: you have to find a new way to regulate social conflict. Again, Aristotle did not face this problem. I would certainly be willing to concede to Pfau that Hobbes over-reacted to the emergence of this kind of dissensus, for it made him skeptical of the very plausibility of a summum bonum rather than just skeptical about its political efficacy. But you do not have to go all the way with Hobbes on this point in order to think that his political science is a powerful response to a new problem raised by modern social reality—indeed a problem that is still with us. But just as Pfau’s defense of the classical view of agency dodges the kinds of questions raised by modern science, it also fails to ask whether we might need a new discourse about agency in order to make sense of modern political and social life. When modern social, political, and economic realities are discussed, they are viewed only as the outcome of flawed modern theories of agency, rather than as the very phenomena that modern theories of agency are devised to explain, a curious reversal.
None of what I have said about Hobbes here is particularly subtle or original—I’m sure Pfau has heard all of this before and many times. The problem is that Pfau’s methodology has made him systematically indifferent to these kinds of considerations. Although he emphasizes the importance of history in fleshing out the meaning of a concept, and in giving it reality, he ultimately views the history of the concept of agency in the way Newman viewed the history of Christianity. It is the history of a single metaphysical reality that some people saw more clearly and others not so well. R. G. Collingwood provides us with an alternative view of the history of ideas in his autobiography:
What even the best and wisest of those who are engaged in politics are trying to do has altered. Plato’s Republic is an attempt at a theory of one thing; Hobbes’s Leviathan an attempt at a theory of something else… [T]he history of political theory is not the history of different answers given to one and the same question, but the history of a problem more or less constantly changing, whose solution was changing with it (An Autobiography, pp. 61-62).
The same thing can be said about the problems that give rise to theories about human agency; they are always changing, or at the very least, being added to. Modern theories of agency are tailored to modern questions. They should not be interpreted as bad answers to perennial questions. It might very well be that Aristotelian or Thomist approaches to human agency have never been completely superseded, that they have resources and advantages that contemporary views lack. But no argument to that end will ever be satisfying which insists on measuring modern theories with a pre-modern yardstick.