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. (I am putting aside, for the moment, who it is that constitutes this “we.”) According to Pfau, we have forgotten the conceptual framework of human personhood and thus have a “stunted conception of the will” or, more ominously, “[have atrophied] our capacity for articulate reasoning about ends” (10, 398, 325). Pfau’s equivocation as to whether the problem is a conception or an actual impairment of the will or agency is telling. Pfau is convinced that our conceptual portfolio shapes and reflects our capacity for reasoning, judging, and willing. Yet this is a different, and far less contentious, point than the one that insists that a particular vocabulary or argument is either in accord with or detrimental to moral judgment and moral behavior. For instance, does Thomas Hobbes’s denial of a qualitative divide between humans and other animals really “cause us to stray into very dangerous moral territory” (203)?
Pfau endorses what he refers to as the Christian-Platonic vision of the human person: one possessing a will that is intellectual and spiritual; a will authorized by reason—reason being an interior transcendent source cultivated through active, even laborious, engagement with intellectual traditions. This sense of humanity, according to Pfau, lends meaning, purpose, and direction to human acting and propels us past the twin dangers of deontology and voluntarism. In Pfau’s telling, this understanding of human agency has been eclipsed by a Natural-Reductionist account of the human as inaugurated by William of Ockham’s nominalism and theological voluntarism, which is, in turn, steadily exacerbated by the individualism, voluntarism, skepticism, materialism, and sentimentalism represented by Hobbes, Bernard Mandeville, John Locke, David Hume and Adam Smith. It is Coleridge who sees what Pfau describes as “damaged life” (borrowing the phrase from Adorno) and sets out to resuscitate the Christian-Platonic conceptual constellation of human agency.
Might Pfau, too, show signs of amnesia? Pfau acknowledges that there is no singular modernity (18), but seems unconcerned with the implications of this for his project. Might the multiple persecutions and capitalist pressures of modernity have prompted dramatic reconfigurations of notions of the good and of human agency? Might the erosion of a particular Christian-Platonic intellectual tradition be attributable to the increasing pressures of pluralism and attendant demands for equality and liberty? Might a “stunted outlook on agency” be attributable to the displacement of agency onto a modernity that “flattens,” “forgets” and “understands itself” (10, 17-18)?
Adorno, too, is given to intellectualizing, but his account of modernity as “damaged life” is not so insular. He writes:
“The authority of the Kantian concept of truth turned terroristic with the ban on thinking the absolute. Irresistibly, it drifts toward a ban on all thinking. . . . Hence the scantiness of what happens in Kant as cognition, compared with the experience of the living . . . .Socially, there is good reason to suspect that block, the bar erected against the absolute, of being one with the necessity to labor, which in reality keeps mankind under the same spell that Kant transfigured into a philosophy.”
For Adorno, the production and repercussion of ideas cannot be separated from the material conditions of life which directly contribute to the forgetfulness that begets apathy. Like Pfau, he is committed to the mobilization and authorization of wills, but specifically on behalf of the protection of “tormentable bodies,” and in the aftermath of a massive campaign of torture, death and dehumanization.
Adorno’s new “categorical imperative”–to arrange one’s thoughts and actions so that nothing like Auschwitz will ever happen again–is sustained by a bodily sensation of abhorrence at the agony to which human persons have been exposed. Pfau is deeply troubled by the materialism that creeps into modern moral frameworks. Yet, for Adorno, it is the course of history that forces materialism upon metaphysics; morality, as an action and not simply an attitude, is predicated on the materialistic/bodily motive, even as Adorno acknowledges the necessity of reasoned deliberation and judgment, and furthermore, the irreconcilable tension between the two. Adorno recoups emotion (woe, melancholy, outrage) in service of human agency, while deploring the culture industry’s deployment of affect in the service of passive spectatorship. This aim accords with Pfau’s helpful elaboration of Augustine’s critique of theatrically induced sympathy as attenuating moral agency (340).
Connecting his critique of theological voluntarism with what Brad Gregory calls the Reformation’s “self-marginalization of theology,” Pfau does not consider that political, philosophical, feminist and womanist thinkers have, for some time now, made good on the secular deregulation of religion and theology. Both have, in fact, managed to forage through the remains to construct political theologies that reflect their understandings of personhood and human agency in the context of particular historical traumas that have entailed the denial of personhood to various populations. Adorno, for instance, constructs an “inverse theology” so as to illuminate the modern disaster that is the Holocaust. His project has some resemblance to a “negative theology,” but Adorno explicitly disavows the inscrutability that understandably troubles Pfau about Ockham’s God (see 173).
Delores Williams’ womanist theology, for instance, uncovers the racist legacies that inhabit the theodicy that Pfau claims characterizes modernity (181). Neither Williams nor Adorno rely on the thinkers or vocabulary of the Christian-Platonic tradition touted by Pfau. Rather than being symptomatic of a stunted conception of agency, however, their projects are critical explorations of human agency in particular historical contexts. Specifically, their projects examine how concepts and texts authorize political, economic, and cultural arrangements that govern what is real and who counts.
The point is not just that Pfau does not consult these sources (Adorno is summoned but rarely speaks), or that, colloquially speaking, he and I belong to different fandoms (despite some overlapping members). Rather, it is that his claim of a profound and extensive amnesia affecting “us,”—indeed constituting “modernity”—is disingenuous given both his inattention to contexts or conditions beyond the intellectual and the narrow range of “pivotal texts and voices” (41) he selects out as cause and antidote of this amnesia. Repudiating the linear schema of time whereby events and ideas are strung like “beads on a rosary” (41-43), Pfau insists he is not nostalgic (68-9), and that one does not simply inherit the past but must labor for it (49). Yet, his account reads like the re-authorization of a particular Western intellectual and theological canon.
Allow me to elaborate on this point by turning to two troubling scenes in Pfau’s account. Pfau repeats Earl of Shaftesbury’s smug dismissal of his former tutor: “if he [Locke] had known but ever so little of antiquity, or been tolerably learned in the state of philosophy with the ancients, he had not heaped such loads of words upon us” (223). Further along, Pfau repeats another of Shaftesbury’s put-downs: “Had Mr. Locke been a virtuoso, he would not have philosophized thus. For harmony is beauty” (242). The lord Shaftesbury dismisses the servant Locke as an outsider, as one who is neither an heir to the intellectual inheritance of the ancients, nor bearer of the refined taste and skill that distinguishes the noble “us” who need not seek employment.
Pfau’s inclusion of these comments seems gratuitous, yet strangely consonant with his own assessment of Locke’s project. He refers to the Lockean self as a “vagrant of sorts, unable to achieve any temporal perspective on his or her flourishing, let alone grasp and articulate normative commitments of any kind” (224). Is Locke among the disinherited? Is his education lacking? (Pfau denigrates Mandeville’s inordinate attention to physiological sensation and speculates it may be attributable to his medical training (257); Locke, too, was trained in medicine.) Does Locke lack an appreciation for harmony given that his attention is fixed on conflict and persecution? Pfau repeats the conventional readings of Locke as arguing for the privatization of religion, insisting that religion has nothing to do with the common good, proffering a tenuous deism, and rendering a “disengaged and hermetic self” (309-310, 385, 182). It is these arguments that reveal Locke’s amnesia, his ignorance of the Christian-Platonic tradition that alone safeguards personhood.
Locke, however, did not advocate for the privatization of religion. Locke advocated for religion’s place in the public sphere because he was convinced that the scrutiny and argumentation entailed in publicness exert a disciplinary effect on religion, and because his understanding of “true religion” consisted of the ideally shared conviction as to the inalienability of individual rights. For Locke, a shared conviction as to the inalienability of human rights was predicated on widespread belief in a creator God whose benevolent claim upon humans constituted their transcendence and thus the imperative of law to protect their persons. Establishing and maintaining this theological consensus required discouragement of public proclamations of atheism as well as parental inculcation of this particular political theology. Given this theological consensus, religious differences, reconstructed by Locke as opinion, speech, idea, and even “fashion,” could circulate at a remove from vulnerable human persons.
Pfau also claims that Locke’s self lacks a “sense of obligation” (225). I disagree. Locke combs through the shards of theology, seeking a shared warrant for the political and religious protection of individuals. Locke and Adorno are perhaps more similar than is suggested by Pfau’s narrative. Both of them address the use of the state’s coercive and punitive power to enforce homogeneity and eliminate difference; they critique the philosophical and theological justifications of this undertaking; and they piece together a theological warrant to name and denounce the violence. Nonetheless, given their pluralistic contexts and (varied) commitments to the flourishing of human differences, Locke and Adorno do not evoke substantive goods and determinate ends. They solicit human agency on behalf of preventing the injury and insult of all persons. This is perhaps why Locke so disappoints Pfau and why Adorno is summoned only to endorse a pessimistic reading of modernity.
Pfau is certainly correct that the humanities are in crisis if we imagine ourselves as curators or catalogers of brilliant, albeit lifeless, ideas. What I would add to this contention is that ideas come to life not only in debate with other ideas, but in relationship to the political, economic and cultural fields in which they take shape and are mobilized. Pfau is also correct that human agency is contingent on our honoring the obligation to engage with the voices of the past. The question, and it makes all the difference to me is: whose voices? Pfau’s “pivotal voices” are privileged voices, the production of which entailed various institutionalized layers of exclusion, and precisely because of that fact, do not speak to many persons who feel as dissatisfied with and betrayed by modernity as does Pfau.