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  • Minding the Modern: Human Agency, Intellectual Traditions, and Responsible Knowledge by Thomas Pfau
  • Kevin Hart
Minding the Modern: Human Agency, Intellectual Traditions, and Responsible Knowledge. By Thomas Pfau. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013. Pp. x + 673. $75.00 (cloth). ISBN: 978-0-268-03840-3.

We have become used to panoptic accounts of modernity, often informed by one or another theory of secularization, and are almost inured to them. We might begin with Karl Löwith, whose Meaning in History (1949) argues that our modern sense of history derives from Christian eschatology yet, since it has no ground in faith, can only give us eschatology not as consummation but merely as historical progress. Against this thesis, Hans Blumenberg maintains in The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (1966) that Scholasticism breaks down under internal pressure and finally yields a modernity that cannot be reduced to theological categories. John Milbank's Theology and Social Theory (1990) aims to expose the limitations of "secular reason" mostly by examination of the assumptions of high theory. Only once the theological, and at times flagrantly anti-theological, assumptions of social theory are identified and weighed can theology detach itself from them and be in a position to do its proper job. Finally, Charles Taylor's A Secular Age (2007) is a belated contribution to this genre, its sweeping (and sometimes rambling) narrative seeking to explain how secularism becomes a mass phenomenon. It marks the end of an academic tradition, one in which intellectual brilliance and deep scholarly knowledge have been set in the service of a broad comprehension of our times that is contested almost as soon as it is grasped.

The end of this tradition is not merely a matter of crisp rational argument triumphing over tedious narrative, as some analytic philosophers would wish to urge. Rather, it is a matter of insight (eidetic, lyrical, theological, or whatever) having more power to determine us at a fundamental level than any narrative. We live inside stories, often without knowing that we do, but the vanishing points of each personal world are usually set by those deep insights we inherit or form early in life. Some grounding metaphors come in a purely adventitious manner; others are given in and through a tradition in which we find ourselves and which we slowly and fitfully bring to light through reading and writing. If I am more inclined to prize Löwith and Milbank over Blumenberg, it is probably less because the former two are better storytellers than the latter and more because Blumenberg has a harder job making me adjust my vanishing points. Long before I read Bonaventure's De reductione [End Page 125] artium ad theologiam, I thought that theological language was at the base of how we figure the world. The impact of Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress and the King James Bible being read to me as a child probably set that assumption firmly in place at a very early age.

To be sure, if I am fair and rational, and if Blumenberg argues strongly about a particular issue, I will shift my perspective, but usually more often in the inch than in the mile. No story, however capacious, is ever the whole story; and so neutrality in narrative is never achieved. Grounding insights and metaphors make no pretense to be neutral, and they give an air of completeness simply because they are vanishing points: a whole world answers to them. Yet if we seek to show how other points could have been chosen, or that ours rely on something anterior to them, we never gain neutrality, which perpetually withdraws, and we are in danger of losing intellectual, spiritual, and literary strength in the process of demystifying ourselves. It is very hard to make someone change his or her mind about basic things, such as whether the world is at heart secular or sacred. Not even analytic philosophers, committed to high standards of clarity and rigor, change their minds about the existence of God or the nature of being or the relation of virtue and happiness, even when faced with compelling arguments against their own position. More...


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pp. 125-129
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