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. This first part attends to some of the more focused, informed, and searching questions about Minding the Modern raised by Thomas Joseph White, Mark Alznauer, Brad Gregory, and Charly Coleman. In the second part, I respond to criticisms of my reading of Thomas Hobbes and the fairly widespread tendency to enlist him as a progenitor of the liberal, pluralist, and individualist modernity in which we find ourselves. Finally, inasmuch as this forum, taken in the aggregate, has yielded a revealing, if not altogether reassuring, snapshot of the current state of our intellectual culture, the final part addresses some larger, structural concerns not only raised in my book, but also reflected in the responses it continues to elicit. At issue here will be fundamental assumptions driving not just the responses to Minding the Modern but more generally shaping current intellectual practice, and what it means to engage the competing ideas, interpretations, and intellectual narratives of our peers.
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Minding the Modern is a work of philosophical and theological hermeneutics. It traces the development of a handful of key humanistic concepts (will, person, judgment, action) in Western intellectual culture, from Plato and Aristotle forward into the early nineteenth century. What the book is not, and does not purport to be, is a linear and continuous narrative of social or even philosophical history. Neither is it a Rezeptionsgeschichte on the model of the Constance School, which traces the popular reception and dissemination of ideas. As Brad Gregory observes, “how ideas were received is not Pfau’s principal concern.” As an eminent historian of early modern Europe, Gregory understandably regrets that my narrative does not embed ideas more fully in their complex and often volatile historical moment. Similarly, Paul Silas Peterson would have preferred if Minding the Modern had focused on socio-historical contexts, such as tensions between popular religious culture and the late-medieval Catholic magisterium, on John Wycliffe, the Lollards, Jan Hus, Martin Luther, the Anabaptists, and so forth. Fine studies of this kind do exist, though important work by Caroline Bynum, Eamon Duffy, Brad Gregory and others reminds us that there is no obvious consensus as to how to interpret “the transformation of social, political and economic structures in the late middle ages.”
Given that several respondents remark how awareness of these structures “[is] important for understanding the emergence and development of the intellectual framework of modernity” (Peterson), it makes sense to begin by addressing this very question: what agency, if any, a hermeneutic project may legitimately ascribe to ideas. Yet even to raise that question reveals it to be prima facie philosophical, not historical, in kind. To stipulate that we cannot appraise the thrust and significance of ideas and concepts independent of the historical context supposed to have generated them means preemptively to subordinate philosophical and theological hermeneutics to historical narratives. Yet such narratives don’t just write themselves but rest on myriad interpretive choices. The very labor of specifying and rendering intelligible historical contexts—both for those inhabiting them and for historians belatedly returning to them—actually presupposes conceptual frameworks (not necessarily explicit) on which all hermeneutic practice depends. Hence, if (as Brad Gregory points out) Minding the Modern mainly “deploys ideas as agents,” that approach should not be preemptively rejected as the spurious fruit of esoteric intellectualism or as a questionable heuristic fiction.
Rather, my approach is shaped by the conviction that our inevitably fluid, complex, and often bewildering socio-historical reality will disclose its distinctive features, tendencies, and significance only where it is (pre-)filtered through various narrative and conceptual frameworks. It is true, of course, that in their very application to that reality, these frameworks themselves are in turn subtly and, on occasion, massively altered. Nonetheless, I maintain that such frameworks logically precede the historical situation to which they are applied. On rare occasions, conceptual and narrative frameworks may be rendered unusually explicit by the work of philosophical or theological reflection. More frequently, though, they constitute a received and oblique “tradition” whose tacit efficacy has been variously characterized as “implicit reason” (John Henry Newman), “background awareness” (Michael Polanyi), “pre-judgment” (Hans-Georg Gadamer), or simply as a tangle of narratives absent which living and breathing human beings would remain bereft of all perspective on their existence (Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor).
Hence, if one recognizes that the ability of individuals and communities to achieve an implicit or fully considered grasp of their very existence pivots on the availability of antecedent, narrative and conceptual frameworks, this allows for a study such as Minding the Modern to proceed as it does: namely, as a hermeneutic, rather than socio-historical, analysis of specific conceptual resources and their transformation over time. A bona fide interpretive engagement of that process allows us to close in on the discrete features and tensions intrinsic to concepts of human agency while also being alert to the tangled and dialectical character of their transmission and inflection over long stretches of time.
In his response, Mark Alznauer inflects this contextualist credo—one of several disciplinary axioms scrutinized in Minding the Modern (425-27)—in interesting ways. As he suggests, breaks and tensions within modern conceptions of will and personhood are mainly a function of a “new set of questions and concerns” arising from changed circumstances. For Alznauer, my account of Hobbes fails to acknowledge the latter’s confrontation with “the complicated problem of reconciling modern scientific views of nature with our belief in human freedom.” Now, even though I expressly remark that Hobbes “no longer operates within a Renaissance humanist framework but, instead, emulates the impersonal methods of Baconian science and a model of efficient causation pioneered by modern physics” (197), Alznauer has a point. For my reading of Hobbes does indeed not concede, as Alznauer implies we must, that the new science of physics inevitably and decisively changed the basic concept of human agency. This is a serious and in many respects persuasive view to take, one that I will take up in the second part of my response.
For now, I can only attend to the conceptual tension underlying objections such as Alznauer raises here. That any conception of human agency takes shape within its own particular historical context is, of course, as true for Aristotle or the Stoics as it is for Hobbes or David Hume. Yet this being so does not license the conclusion that the object being explored will each time be a different one. Here again Newman’s concept of “development” (explored in Chapter 3) becomes relevant. On his account, historical “difference” comprises discrete attempts at articulating the same idea. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s distinction, in his 1815 Logic, between difference as “variation” (Unterschied) and sheer “disparity” (Verschiedenheit) is helpful here. The historical specificity of meanings is no warrant for asserting their radical discontinuity. Euclidian and post-Euclidian geometry offer different conceptualizations of the triangle; they do not talk about different triangles. To suppose otherwise is to commit to a radical nominalism that forecloses on both, the possibility of making our own conceptions intelligible to others and, in turn, learning from others placed in different circumstances.
As I argue in Chapter 2, in framing the past as a correlate of strictly archival industry, a strict historicist approach to philosophical and theological ideas inevitably obscures the fundamental continuity of problems and meanings whose articulate engagement must be at the very heart of all humanistic inquiry in the first place. I thus cannot agree with Mark Alznauer’s premise that the questions animating intellectual history are themselves discontinuous. What Minding the Modern means to reclaim is the distinction, found in pre-modern, Realist thinkers, between the trans-historical integrity of essences (Plato’s beautiful, good, and true) and the historically conditioned and necessarily imperfect ways of rendering these realities intelligible and giving them institutional expression. It is in the very nature of humanistic concepts to straddle the boundaries between a non-contingent truth-value and its historically variable and often unstable instantiation.
Alznauer correctly notes that Minding the Modern sees pre-modern and modern thinkers “attempting to answer the same question … but coming to radically different answers.” Yet to him this is a mistake because “in response to changing questions” modern philosophy, beginning with Hobbes, is essentially describing a different kind of agent, substantially unrelated to Aristotelian phronesis. Now, my framework is not outright Aristotelian but incorporates important Platonic and Augustinian-Thomist elements. Moreover, as Minding the Modern repeatedly points out, these classical accounts retain enormous influence on modern thought, whether recognized or not. The Third Earl of Shaftesbury, Hume, and Immanuel Kant retain important Stoic motifs; elsewhere, I have made similar points about Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Likewise, Kant also retains important Platonic elements (especially in his understanding of ideas), as Samuel Taylor Coleridge never tired to point out; and Hegel above all is almost unintelligible if we fail to see him engaging the Aristotelian and Plotinian legacy. Contrary to Alznauer, then, I do not take it as a given that our situation is so radically different that intellectual traditions prior to the seventeenth century have suddenly been drained of all relevance. In fact, a central feature of Minding the Modern is to emphasize the costs of such self-inflicted conceptual amnesia, the claim being that our intellectual resources today are so impoverished at least in part because we have allowed that assumption to take hold.
Far more clearly than most other respondents, Thomas Joseph White recognizes that Minding the Modern neither dogmatically asserts some putatively timeless view of the “truth” intrinsic to these conceptions nor nostalgically laments their apparent erosion in the modern era. That said, White is right to express concern about the fact that I do not confront how “the discoveries of particle physics and evolutionary theory” have arguably challenged the framework of Aristotelian teleology, nor some of the “sophisticated answers” devised by modern Thomists responding to that challenge. Considerations of length and concerns over a potential distortion of emphasis prompted me not to incorporate materials on teleology in Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, as well as an engagement with Robert Spaemann’s and Reinhard Löw’s superb work on the changeful history of teleological thinking.
White’s second query strikes me as arguably the most substantive and difficult question raised about Minding the Modern in the entirety of this forum, and I do not think that I have a satisfactory answer to it. As I understand White, the question is whether Aquinas’ mainly analogical account of God as the ontological foundation of rational agency precludes actual proof of God’s existence or is itself complemented by some such proof elsewhere in Aquinas’ oeuvre. The first position, which White finds me espousing in my book, risks approaching rationality, teleology, and the intellectual virtues (above all prudentia) strictly through “the medium of faith” and, in so doing, to commit to a “fideist” position that ends up looking “more voluntarist and irrationalist than [I] might wish to admit.” I am grateful to White both for the precision with which he defines the problem and for his (to me) persuasive suggestion that we might recover from it through “an even more pronounced retrieval of the philosophy of being, personhood, and God.” I wholeheartedly concur with his closing observation that “a healthy tradition is also one that insists perpetually on the integral structure of philosophical analysis in the domain of religion.” Yet in a culture as un- or anti-intellectual as our own, such a project will almost certainly be confined to a highly circumscribed community of thinkers and its highly technical, not to say esoteric languages of inquiry; and on those rare occasions when such inquiry reaches the wider public, it is bound to be met with a mix of incomprehension, indifference, and misconstrual. Furthermore, hostility to rigorous philosophical engagement with religion and theology also characterizes many established and emergent domains of the academy (e.g., most forms of contemporary philosophy, historiography, and literary, gender, and cultural studies, to name but a few), as well as much of contemporary Christianity (including Catholicism), whose dominant evangelical and charismatic inflection has largely supplanted or marginalized a once robust commitment to philosophical theology. In this regard, the intellectual and philosophical culture of contemporary Judaism strikes me as far more vibrant and meaningfully integrated with its practice.
Aside from White and Alznauer, Charly Coleman is the only respondent to acknowledge the significant investments of Minding the Modern in ancient philosophy. His point that “it should give one pause that Plato’s Republic advocates eugenics…or that Aristotle and Aquinas, despite their commitment to fulfilling the promise of human personhood, also justify slavery” is well taken. Precisely for such reasons, and following Newman and Gadamer, my account of intellectual traditions emphasizes the evolving, progressively clarifying structure of intellectual discovery. Far from being idols of mindless reverence, intellectual traditions live and are significantly altered by each successive attempt of individuals and communities of learning to inhabit them in a struggle for genuine comprehension. It would help to know whether Coleman concurs with this last statement, or whether he regards the partial blindness afflicting all past intellectual efforts as a warrant for their present, wholesale expurgation.
Coleman’s misgivings about my overly monolithic treatment of the Enlightenment are understandable. Certainly, it is true that Minding the Modern limits itself to a narrow slice of English and Scottish social and moral theory, and that the resulting, highly selective narrative may not well accommodate writers like Jacob Vernet or Denis Diderot. It bears keeping in mind, however, that Rousseau, for one, was sufficiently troubled by the drift of Rationalism, Materialism, and the Encyclopedists to pioneer a powerful, if also highly problematic, critique of the French Enlightenment in its own time. Still, Coleman’s objection stands, and I can answer it only by reiterating that my argument does not purport to offer a continuous and all-encompassing history. Rather, my narrower and forensic focus on Bernard Mandeville, Francis Hutcheson, Hume, and Smith was meant to trace one strand of reframing human agency within aggressively naturalist and proto-reductionist terms. That this tradition exhibits such striking continuities with twentieth-century behaviorism and recent, neuroscientific reductionism arguably justifies lifting it out of a rather more complex web of concurrent and, at times, competing versions of Enlightenment thought.