Minding the Modern is unusual in several respects. It is organized historically but anti-historicist, methodologically self-aware yet critical of “method,” and reliant on close literary readings while focused on categories of moral philosophy and philosophical anthropology. Because of its density, length, range, erudition, analytical probity, and resistance to genre categorization, no brief review can do it justice. The book merits studied reflection of a sort that specialized humanistic scholars in their harried lives find difficult to accommodate. However inadequately, I can here only describe the book’s argument and method, offer a few remarks about its achievement, and note some of its limitations.
Thomas Pfau’s work is an original combination of longue-durée intellectual history, phenomenological hermeneutics, moral philosophy, and cultural criticism. Detractors of the work that chide it for “confusing” history with philosophy, or of “conflating” the empirical with the normative, not only ignore but also reinforce Pfau’s criticism of distinctions long assumed in the modern humanities, which arose for reasons analyzed in his narrative. Alternatively, he models the sort of intellectual engagement he advocates: humanistic inquiry is unavoidably an interpretative endeavor insofar as it assumes the concepts of human action and agency. These inescapably entail the concepts of person and will plus multiple cognate concepts, such as self-awareness, judgment, teleology, and responsibility.
To show the difference between hermeneutics without which humanistic scholarship cannot be sustained and theories that threaten its very possibility, Pfau provides a genealogical analysis of two long-standing, rival intellectual traditions. Or rather, one tradition uses the concepts of person and will and the second ultimately denies their coherence. Both have ancient origins and long subsequent developments: “a Christian-Platonist tradition, broadly conceived, and a naturalist-reductionist tradition that spans from the Greek atomists to David Hume and his contemporary, neuroscientific descendants,” which constitute “two strictly incompatible views of how even to approach human phenomena to begin with.”
The dominant contributors to the Christian-Platonist tradition were Plato and Aristotle, followed by Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas. In this tradition, reason and will are interrelated aspects of morally responsible persons in social relationships, teleological participants in the logos that orders and sustains the cosmos.
The epistemological nominalism and moral voluntarism of the naturalist-reductionist tradition began to grow with William of Ockham in the fourteenth century, accelerating with Thomas Hobbes in the mid-seventeenth. Despite advocates among the Cambridge Platonists and reverberations in the Earl of Shaftesbury and Francis Hutcheson, the Christian-Platonist tradition was left largely unremembered in an “amnesiac modernity” by the end of the eighteenth century.
In the naturalist-reductionist tradition from Hobbes to the present, a mechanistically conceived nature is disaggregated into individual objects. Final causality is rejected and efficient causality applied to explain human behaviors. Theoretical and practical reason are separated from each other, and “person” and “will” lose coherence. Samuel Taylor Coleridge understood what was at stake and sought to retrieve the Christian-Platonist concepts. But his efforts were overwhelmed by utilitarian, materialist, and positivist philosophies and with the partial exception of Cardinal Newman, Coleridge lacked successors until the later twentieth century. Then, thinkers such as Hans-Georg Gadamer, Elizabeth Anscombe, Alasdair MacIntyre, Iris Murdoch, Charles Taylor, Robert Spaemann, and others—to whom Pfau’s debt is apparent—recognized the importance of intellectual traditions, variously demonstrated the viability of the Christian-Platonist tradition, and offered sustained critiques of modernity. But by then, the naturalist-reductionist tradition had long become pervasive in Western society at large.
Paradoxically, Pfau argues, an intellectually incoherent tradition displaced a coherent one and is taken for granted as the constitutive fabric of the (post-)modern, voluntarist self, bureaucratic states, and consumerist society. Through assumptions and methods that undermine concepts necessary for their labors, humanistic scholars are enervating their own disciplines: “absent a sustained, comprehensive, and evolving critical engagement with the history of its key concepts of human agency (will, judgment, person, teleology), humanistic inquiry will not only find itself increasingly marginalized in the modern university, but will eventually discover itself to have been the principal agent of its own undoing.” Pfau’s book thus makes an unsettling contribution to current anxiety about the state of the humanities.
Pfau works through close, phenomenologically informed readings of major texts by thinkers chosen for “the particular force and exemplary (or symptomatic) nature of their arguments” and interpreted as participants in ongoing intellectual traditions. He offers “a series of forensic readings of representative arguments” in order “[t]o render intellectual history vivid and engaging, and so become alert to the profound stakes of its contested ideas and genealogies of inquiry.” At the same time Pfau discusses many other writers, giving the book a very dense texture. Underscoring his argument about long-term intellectual traditions, he refers to more recent authors in discussing earlier ones, and earlier authors in explicating later ones to reinforce the intertwined layering of ideas related by borrowing, transformation, contestation, and repudiation.
This expository practice, as well as Pfau’s recurrent use of contemporary commentators on the texts he interprets, drives home the book’s rejection of historicism. By historicism Pfau means not the presumably unobjectionable contextualization of ideas as per definitionem products of a certain time and place, but the modern disallowance of premodern ideas in present-day arguments when the distant past is viewed as a superseded “repository of expired meanings and outmoded practices.” Pfau argues that we must retain a historical awareness of intellectual traditions yet reject a historicism that disallows the concepts of person and will, else human actions, morality, and identity themselves lose their intelligibility and humanities scholars imperil humanistic inquiry as such.
By any fair assessment, Minding the Modern is a remarkable intellectual achievement. The book is historically wide-ranging, philosophically sophisticated, analytically powerful, and undeniably erudite. Whatever particular interpretative bones one might pick, Pfau does what he says humanistic scholars should do: engage seriously, critically, and with historical and philosophical awareness with concepts central to any understanding of what is distinctively human. He makes a powerful case about the indispensability of ideas in any understanding of history—because ideas are necessary in any grasp of human action as action and therefore as human, rather than as merely the (bio)mechanical, behavioral product of natural efficient causes at whatever scale.
This includes not just the actions of human beings engaged overtly in intellectual activity, but by extension the actions of those involved in agricultural practices, buying and selling commodities, raising families, waging war, arguing lawsuits, inventing technologies, and so forth. No human history can do without intellectual history insofar as human history involves the actions of persons. Pfau also implicitly argues for the importance of contested ideas in historical change—because he analyzes how agonistic metaphysical, epistemological, and moral views were critically important to the emergence of modernity. Yet this prompts questions about whether the Christian-Platonist tradition was eclipsed by “a prolonged failure to remember” as distinct from a deliberate rejection, and what might have inspired its repudiation.
Human history requires intellectual history, but intellectual history is not the entirety of the human past. Minding the Modern is a penetrating work about an important web of crucial concepts, but some of its limitations derive from Pfau’s way of proceeding: principally through close engagement with a relatively small number of major texts illustrative of the traditions he wants to trace. He does this impressively, but I doubt the two intellectual traditions he analyzes can bear the explanatory weight he attributes to them.
For a book so concerned about practical reason and human action, Minding the Modern pays little attention to the concrete actions of most human beings in the past. Pfau rightly implies that the ideas of the naturalist-reductionist tradition have been not merely the preserve of a handful of thinkers talking among themselves, but pervasively transformative of modern society, institutions, and human beings at large. But how and why this happened remains unexamined. Presumably it was more than Bishop Tempier’s condemnations in 1277, which cast suspicion on Thomism and enabled the eventual modern dominance of the naturalist-reductionist tradition. Pfau surely knows that Aquinas and Ockham wrote in a language that less than one percent of the population could read, and that their ideas were transmitted via manuscripts in friars’ studia and universities. How different this was from, say, the seven editions of Bernard Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees published between 1714 and 1733 at a time of burgeoning British literacy. Yet Pfau pays no attention to this difference, or to any other differences relevant to how ideas central to his study spread or were received (or not) and thus affected (or not) the persons who exercised their wills in responding to them. Or perhaps the actions of most persons are less influenced directly by ideas than by others’ actions?
How ideas were received is not Pfau’s principal concern, but ignoring it leaves an explanatory hole between his central ideas, texts, and thinkers on the one hand, and the persons at large transformed by them over the long-term—which is part of his purview.
This hole cannot be filled by ascribing agency to the concepts themselves without vitiating the analysis of human agency that Pfau defends. Yet he sometimes writes as though this were so. To give only one example, with reference to Matthew Arnold’s comments on the modern emphasis on doing over thinking, Pfau asserts that “homo faber names the inevitable endpoint of a theology that, beginning in the early fourteenth century, found itself unable to sustain the Thomistic cooperation of intellect and will.” This theology “found itself” unable to sustain this cooperation, or theologians who adopted premises incompatible with Thomism chose, in exercising their wills, not to do so? Pfau deploys ideas as agents, perhaps because his style of intellectual history does not consider institutions, economic interactions, social relationships, or the exercise of power. All these are unintelligible apart from ideas and human intentions, but they are not coextensive with or reducible to them.
One could argue that in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, throughout Western Europe, the disputes between practitioners of the nominalist via moderna and the realist via antiqua mattered little for how nearly everyone understood themselves, at least implicitly, as moral agents. These intellectual differences per se were largely if not entirely irrelevant to local practices of Christianity that informed human relationships in multiple respects, and were for centuries the principal carriers of concepts of person and will. Historically reconstructing such understanding among ordinary folk (and even most social elites) is notoriously difficult, but sermons and legal records, plus Books of Hours and devotional writings, are more promising than abstruse scholastic philosophical and theological reflections. These sources too are shot through with ideas. Nevertheless, Christianity appears in Pfau’s book almost exclusively at the level of recondite intellectual reflection, particularly regarding the specific issues in philosophical theology and moral philosophy that drive his inquiry. Yet Christianity informed human life in ways that concerned more than intellectual matters. This fact is especially consequential for three centuries that are missing in Minding the Modern, namely 1350 to 1650.
Pfau knows that European history, including intellectual history, was not in stasis between the Black Death and the English Revolution. But he passes over it almost entirely, presumably because he regards it as unnecessary in getting from Ockham’s repudiation of Aquinas to Hobbes’s secularized radicalization of voluntaristic nominalism. Still, the exposition jumps jarringly from the implications of divine potentia absoluta in Ockham to a discussion of power and the state in Hobbes. To be sure, Pfau shows a legitimate connection between them. But the unasked question is why political stability and coexistence were Hobbes’s central concerns in a way they were not for any medieval thinker, regardless of their particular intellectual commitments. Within his explanatory framework of ideas and other non-persons as agents, this is what Pfau says about change between Ockham and Hobbes (agents are italicized, passive changes underlined):
A shift begins to take place, slowly and unwittingly for some time, yet nonetheless inexorable in its logic and outcome. As theoretical and practical rationality increasingly diverge, and as philosophy and theology begin to acquire distinct conceptual and institutional identities, the project of rational, virtue-based self-governance goes into decline because there no longer appears to be any ontological guarantee that what counts as right reason must remain so for all time.
Note the lack of human actors or agency, and the absence of anything that would explain why Hobbes is preoccupied with the state, power, and stable coexistence.
What Pfau ignores is the Reformation era and its concrete religio-political disruptions, which were linked to the advent of transformative disagreements within Western Christianity. Because Christianity was more than ideas, the Reformation’s effects extended far beyond philosophical theology and moral philosophy. Because seemingly intractable and demonstrably disruptive disagreements among Christians proved such a problem between the 1520s and 1640s, thinkers sought means to answer questions about morality, politics, and knowledge without reference to contested Christian categories or the scholasticism institutionalized in confessionalized universities in the early seventeenth century. The scope and persistence of the disagreements, and the recurrent destructiveness of the conflicts, were unprecedented in the previous millennium in the Latin West. Hence Hobbes’s preoccupation with politics in a manner that would avoid Christianity’s contested doctrinal claims. As a consequence, modern philosophy beginning with Francis Bacon and René Descartes has a dramatically different character from late medieval scholasticism—which included Thomists, Scotists, and nominalists. They coexisted for over 150 years after Ockham’s death without precipitating the sorts of doctrinal divisions characteristic of the Reformation era, notwithstanding the late medieval church’s many other antagonisms.
For all practical purposes, Pfau ignores the Protestant Reformation and its consequences. This is an extension of ignoring the institutional and social aspects of medieval and early modern Christianity, and trying to make ideas do all his explanatory work. Pfau mentions that he would like to have devoted a chapter to Martin Luther akin to those dedicated to the other thinkers he analyzes, but this would not have solved the problem of ignoring the Reformation as a socio-political reality or of explaining the preoccupations of Hobbes—or the extra-confessional priorities of many other seventeenth-century thinkers. It would have provided a (doubtlessly insightful) reading of Luther’s nominalism in relationship to Ockham before and Hobbes after him. Yet it would not have gone beyond the analysis of ideas within the two intellectual traditions in Minding the Modern. And such an expansion is necessary if Pfau is concerned, as he is, to use ideas to explain political, social, and economic change over time, rather than to remain content with an internalist intellectual-historical narrative of thinkers reading and responding to one another.
History is more than the hermeneutics and ideas that cannot be eliminated from it. Historical explanations that rely (nearly) entirely on persons espousing and expressing ideas will fall short of explaining changes that were the product of persons exercising their wills in actions. That said, Minding the Modern is an enormously insightful and stimulating book. It is a learned reflection in historically minded philosophical anthropology. It is deeply subversive of multiple assumptions widely taken for granted in the contemporary academy and in wider Western society. And it makes incisive contributions to intellectual history, philosophical hermeneutics, and moral philosophy in relationship to one another, forging a powerful argument about the character of human persons and will, actions, and agency, which scholars ignore at their peril.