Symposium Introduction

When Syndicate sent Thomas Pfau’s Minding the Modern to one of this forum’s six contributors—I won’t say which one—I immediately received a request for an extension. It was not because the length of the book intimidated him, though its size is indeed impressive. It was rather because it was, in his words, “too interesting to skim.”

I do not tell this story because I want to embarrass this contributor, whom I later found out had also been in the middle of a move while reading and commenting on the book. Instead, the point is that if Minding the Modern is “too interesting to skim,” then perhaps there is something personal about reading it. Indeed, Pfau opens with the point that the concepts in the book aren’t tools to be used; that would, after all, be a reason to skim a book, to pick up what is necessary and to leave the rest. As Pfau argues,

Our relationship to concepts thus should mirror that to other persons . . . For that to happen, and for us to inhabit concepts as living frameworks with a deep history, rather than occasionally wielding them as tools (such as resonates in the sadly common phrase of “applying a theory”) also means to conceive rationality not as a correlate of self-possession but of what, echoing Hegel, Gadamer calls “recognition” (Anerkennung). (31)

For Pfau, a concept is like a person. You can’t use concepts; you have to engage them. You have to know their histories, the way they passed on their traditions and their stories, because concepts are a remembrance of the past. They also grow—or, as John Henry Newman put it—they develop. You have to let a concept breathe, talk, walk. To use a concept—indeed, to be complicit in the modern academic culture’s practices of applying theories and skimming books—is what (for Pfau) is paralyzing the humanities. You don’t skim Minding the Modern. You engage Pfau as Pfau engages you head-on with a dialogue about the concepts he explores.

Minding the Modern suggests that the “death of the humanities,” so glibly discussed in our academic culture, is nothing short of the death of humanity in modernity, period. The gaze of modernity, Pfau shows, has sundered the concepts of “will” and “person” from the traditions that gave them meaning, dismantling the very intellectual frameworks that make human agency possible. Even when history is studied, the modern purpose of historicism is to cut us off from the past, to say that then was then and now is now so that even our act of remembering is to forget. As John Henry Newman and Samuel Taylor Coleridge insist, this is no way to do history; the past is, after all, not even past because the concepts that are still necessary for human agency today are more desperately needed than ever.

Minding the Modern is an episodic account of two concepts, “will” and “person,” that Pfau claims to be central to human agency. Marshaling texts from Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas, Pfau follows their thought on the “will” in contest with their interlocutors. Pfau engages these persons as they develop a conceptual tradition of ethical action while engaging with other persons, resulting in a series of dialectical exchanges showing that the will operates as a kind of personal psychology engaging in both interior and exterior conceptual dialogue. Persons developed this conceptual tradition, Pfau claims, and persons then forgot it. Beginning with Franciscan turns toward a nominalist philosophy detaching divine action from this conceptual apparatus (especially in Ockham), Pfau leads us down another conversation—a dialogue of forgetting—consisting of Hobbes, Locke, the Earl of Shaftesbury, Mandeville, Hutcheson, Hume, and Smith. In the modern mind, agency (Pfau contends) has become detached from concepts, resulting in a progressive amnesia about the frame of action, generating our modern paralysis. A rereading of Coleridge, Pfau suggests, can help us remember this personal frame of action again, to have our wills relate again to persons as we dialogue about concepts, an action that will invigorate our agency, our ability to act again.

In this way, Pfau provides a phenomenology of what we do when we read, when we use our wills and intellects, when we engage with concepts. Paralleling that effort, our Syndicate panel attempts to show what it means to engage with the concepts that Pfau explores, seeking precisely to develop the concepts of “will” and “person” that Pfau claims to be central to human agency. Vivasvan Soni calls attention to Pfau’s utopian tendencies in his direction to reengage with tradition, asking him to reflect on the deep-seated antagonisms between rational deliberation and the creation of future fictions in his conceptual apparatus. Silvianne Bürki challenges Pfau’s romanticism, urging him to take his methodological reading of human agency to the next step of bridging faith and reason. Andrew Grosso pushes Pfau to go even further back in his excavation of the concepts of will and person, to pinpoint the loss of conceptual frames of action in the absolutization of divine sovereignty in Israel’s post-exilic faith. Cyril O’Regan wants Pfau to think critically about his genealogical framework, asking him to clarify why exactly the particular thinkers he has chosen (especially Coleridge) suffice for his conceptual archaeology. William Robert highlights how Pfau’s engagement with Aquinas is a juxtaposition of one genealogy (Pfau’s) with another (Aquinas’s) and gently nudges Pfau to do the same with the nominalist Franciscans that he vilifies. Eugene Webb wants Pfau to consider the possibility that Eastern Christian thought may have also been subject to the same amnesias, suggesting that Pfau take into account genealogies that are not yet part of his story due to schisms in the Christian church. In each of these engagements, a person has read Pfau as a person engaging concepts that still have yet to be developed; the dialectical urging—even goading—of these reviews underscores precisely the central point on which Pfau insists in the book: concepts are to be developed in dialectical dialogue, not forgotten in ways that produce paralysis. To engage is to act; to forget is to die.

Let me finish, then, on a final personal note. Artur Rosman, a writer of no small notoriety in the Catholic blogosphere, is running a lengthy Patheos interview with Pfau on Minding the Modern concurrently with our forum. Although he is my friend, I am not trying to plug his blog here; that would, after all, be a form of utilitarianism that Pfau would condemn. Rosman’s loyal readership will already know of his openness, even of his vulgarity, in discussing his financial woes in the modern capitalist system. He has given me personal permission to say that during one of those more stressful periods, he stayed up late at night reading Minding the Modern. Like the contributor with whose story I began, Rosman also found it impossible to skim the book; it was like the account of eighteenth-century nominalism, the forgetting of the person and the disembedding of the will from the conceptual tradition of human agency, was guiding him to understand the intellectual origins of the arbitrariness that he continues to face as a person publicly on the margins of the market economy. Rosman found consolation in the personal engagement with the living concepts of “will” and “person” so that he could continue to exercise his human agency in a world that militates against it. It is that recovery of the sources of action to which Pfau aims. As St. Augustine might have said, take up and read—for to read is to act, and to act is to live.



Silvianne Bürki

Eugene Webb

Vivasvan Soni

Cyril O’Regan

Andrew Grosso

William Robert

About the Author

Thomas Pfau is Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of English and professor of German at Duke University, with a secondary appointment on the Duke Divinity School faculty.

Silvianne Burki


The (Missing) Praxis of Radical Hermeneutics

THOMAS PFAU SETS OUT to mind modernity, in the various senses of the word: he calls to mind the development of modern models of subjectivity and agency (concepts which arguably lie at the heart of modernity), while, at the same time, minding the danger of framing his task in distinctly modern terms, such as seeing it as an emancipation from the past. The result is a book that combines a critique of modern humanistic enquiry with an attempt to trace the genealogy of notions crucial to modernity. The central question is whether Pfau achieves the latter by employing an alternative methodology to the one he wishes to criticise. This is the focus of the following essay. Put differently, I am interested in how the four main parts of Pfau’s work relate methodologically and what is implied by their relation.

In what follows, I will first consider Pfau’s methodological commitments, focussing mainly on the first part of his study. Secondly, I will ask whether and how the rest of Pfau’s book meets his own standards. I will argue that while his critique of modernity is striking, and his call for an alternative humanistic method highly welcome, his book does not indicate the alternative approach he proposes as fully as one would hope. In my third section, I will focus on drawing out some of the methodological issues implicit in Pfau’s work and attempt to take them one step further.1

1. Recovering Newman

The first seventy pages of Minding the Modern are among the most original and inspiring parts of the book. In chapter 1, Pfau considers the fundamental change in the self-understanding of humanistic enquiry since the rise of modernity and critiques the contemporary humanities’ “allergic” reaction to what premoderns would have taken for granted, namely, that “to know might depend on the cultivation of moral and intellectual virtues” (13). For the tradition from Plato up to Aquinas, Pfau argues, will and intellect were essentially and productively intertwined, and dependent on their participation in the Divine. At the heart of humanistic enquiry, for this tradition, one finds not the quest for epistemological mastery of the world through accumulative, inter-subjectively demonstrable knowledge, but rather “the sustained engagement and approximation of the logos of which that world was a fluctuating and inscrutable manifestation” (15). Is knowledge a shared and participatory process, or ultimately a commodity? Modernity, Pfau suggests, opted for the latter, and thus supplanted “ontological truth with a quest for contingent certainties sought in the methodical, accumulative, and increasingly compartmentalized study of nature” (19).

Chapter 2 considers the cost of applying such a model of enquiry to the study of history. The study of history, against such a background, has to degenerate into historicism which comprises a mere accumulation of facts. History itself comes to be seen as a repository of expired meanings and outmoded practices. Implicitly, this presupposes a flat-line notion of time in which each event is essentially unprecedented and singular. Any fuller understanding of how ideas and conceptions might develop over time becomes unthinkable. Therefore, modernity cannot meaningfully connect itself to its past, and ironically has to forget it in and through its (historicist) attempt to remember.

Chapter 3 examines John Henry Newman’s work as a possible remedy to this modern predicament. Newman famously said that “the present is a text, and the past its interpretation.” Pfau argues that Newman’s conception of the development of ideas over time undoes the dichotomy between tradition and discovery. His recovery of Newman as a source for methodological deliberations on the form and role of the history of ideas is arguably the single most exciting move Pfau performs in this study. For Newman, the process of ideas dialectically unfolding their potential is never simply carried forward by individuals; rather “the movement of an idea is necessarily trans-generational, inter-subjective, and materially concrete” (57). Much in contrast to a Cartesian idea of a “punctual self,” this notion relativises the position of the individual knower, and counters any illusion of her panoptic view; something which, as we shall see, is crucially important to Pfau’s own project. For Newman, then, “it is impossible to distill the idea in question from any one of the discrete stages through which it successively passes. Thus it would be incorrect to say that an idea undergoes development. Rather, a process of development gradually fleshes out, fills in, and so “realizes” the meaning and significance of a specific, and at first cryptic idea or motif” (63).

Crucially, if history, as Newman sees it, is an open-ended process of clarification, where initially cryptic ideas either gain in sharpness, internal consistency and force, or disintegrate over time, and if we cannot distil the idea in question at any single point in history, this opens up an alternative to historicism and a misconstrued ideal of impartiality of the humanities: What is left, Pfau argues, is to take an “active, interpretive, and urgent interest in the idea itself” (508). Such a hermeneutical urgency, for Pfau, involves both “our responsibility for the knowledge in question and our recognition of its transformative impact on ourselves as ethical beings” (509). Such a position in fact combines historic enquiry with a phenomenological view of the subject. There is a convergence, Pfau mentions in an aside, between Husserl’s understanding of human knowledge, namely, as constituted through our sustained participation in (rather than unilateral domination of) specific phenomena and the relative elusiveness, for Newman, of the idea “in and of itself” at any single point in history.

It is Pfau’s contention that we are ethically involved in such elemental and indispensable conceptions as will, person, teleology, judgment and responsibility; there cannot be any such thing as a disinterested and noncommittal enquiry into them. This is also the quintessence of his critique both of a historicist mode of enquiry and of the present state of the humanities in general: “philosophies that peremptorily exclude all questions of value, commitment, and final causes . . . are by and large incapable of correlating thought and existence, life and action, for they only attend to the propositional structure of our locutions” (72).

2. Genealogies, Romanticism and the Critique of Modernity

Just what does an ethical involvement in, and responsibility for, our knowledge look like? How does Minding the Modern perform its own methodological claims? Pfau is a passionate writer, to be sure, and he is willing to take sides in the historical narrative he describes in parts 2 and 3 of his book. These parts—the bulk of the work—trace the development of a cluster of ideas, viz. will, person, judgement and teleology, through the history of Western thought, and frame this history as a story of a tradition emerging, and then disaggregating. Pfau makes no secret of the fact that he prefers the tradition from Plato up to Aquinas and its intertwining of intellect and will, reason and desire over the gradual modern disintegration of this tradition in modernity. Yet in doing this, Pfau is not hermeneutically radical at all. Like other writers of historical narratives such as MacIntyre or Milbank (and indeed like any hermeneutically self-aware historian to some degree), he writes history informed by standards rather than seeing the task of the historian as providing a neutral chronicle. This might display an “urgent interest in the idea itself,” but does not necessarily recognise the “transformative impact” of an idea on the researcher. The extrinsicist element which Pfau wishes to criticise remains intact in historical genealogies: It is possible that the history I tell, and the standards I employ in telling it, remain entirely detached from myself.

Other reviewers have noted that Pfau’s is no straightforward narrative of decline. The reason for this—and it is worth making this explicit—lies in Newman’s view of the impossibility to distil a “pure” idea from its historic embeddings, at any point of history. Such an insight in fact leads to a radical agnosticism regarding our ability to write both narratives of progress or decline. We do not even know whether something is a narrative of decline, because noetically, we are not in a position to decide so. This is what puts Pfau in a self-declared contrast to “high-altitude surveys of intellectual shifts” (65) such as those by Charles Taylor and John Milbank. I doubt, however, that what Pfau does in parts 2 and 3 is anything other than a high-altitude survey of intellectual shifts over time, and it is hard to read these two parts without seeing some sort of narrative of decline in them.

Yet Minding the Modern is not only about a historical narrative. Part 4 introduces a new, methodologically self-reflexive element. This last part of the essay is dedicated to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and his theology and metaphysics. Pfau is seeing him as a “prophet” of his time, who stressed the importance of Trinitarian thought in critiquing modernity, and who, despite the modern disintegration of teleology, favoured a metaphysics of participation. Coleridge embodies one particular way of critiquing modernity, viz. one that tries to retrieve older traditions by assembling a whole host of historical and philosophical arguments, risking to be accused of losing himself in abstruse speculations. This approach proceeds by assuming that people can be reasoned into accepting a position if they are presented with a mass of learning. The problem with this approach is that the reclamation of an intellectual tradition only works if the very loss of it is still felt, as Pfau argues throughout his essay, drawing on Cora Diamond. Because, however, the recognition of the loss is not given under the conditions of modernity, this approach has to fail. Coleridge’s critique of modernity is therefore, in Pfau’s judgement, ambitious yet flawed.

It might come as a surprise, therefore, that Pfau essentially chooses to follow Coleridge’s approach of reclaiming an intellectual tradition through amassing evidence of what has changed (in parts 2 and 3). Indeed, Pfau’s overall project is “Coleridgian,” and veritably neo-Romantic: To “tabulate the costs of modernity” is—in Pfau’s own words at different places in the book—both the aim of his study and of Coleridge’s project (40; 503). The only place where Pfau’s methodology significantly differs from Coleridge’s is in his recognition of the problem of an irreparable loss of memory, viz. that we might have lost the ability to think in the very categories that he is trying to retrieve. Yet this is yet another “romantic” element of Pfau’s project: In arguing that we do not know whether the Platonic-Christian tradition of will and person has been irretrievably misconstrued or by now lost outright, Pfau emphasises the opacity of history to the individual.

Given Pfau’s double “romanticism” in methodologically following Coleridge, and in stressing the opacity of history, it does not come as a surprise that Pfau has to defend himself against the allegation of succumbing to nostalgia. He denies the charge, saying that the stance resulting is “not one of nostalgia but of lucid and articulate mourning” (70). This in turn, he says, is a perspective on history cultivated by writers of Romanticism (which again confirms Pfau’s own neo-romanticism).

One could argue that the romanticism of Pfau’s project comes closer to performing what he calls for methodologically, namely, to involve both writer and reader radically in the issues debated. The subject, having understood the cost of modernity, is put into a position of “mourning” over what is lost, even though it has perhaps even forgotten what it actually had lost. It seems that Pfau is saying that to be transformed and impacted upon as ethical beings by the knowledge we acquire would mean to recognise the loss of teleology and the disintegration of practical reasoning in modernity, to articulate and deplore it. If I understand Pfau correctly here, I am left wondering whether this is all that can be said and done, against the background of what he had elaborated on earlier in conversation with Newman. Could he not have pushed the potential of Newman’s account further?

3. Pushing Further: The Need for a Theological Praxis

Newman embodies another strategy in criticising modernity than Coleridge’s (and Pfau’s). Unlike Coleridge, he does not assemble an entire machinery of historical and philosophical arguments in his attempt to retrieve a lost tradition, precisely because he thinks that people cannot be argued into accepting a position (such as Coleridge’s neo-Platonic Christianity). Rather, what is needed, according to Newman, is “real assent”: “we must secure that worth for our own use by the personal action of our own minds” (cit. 616). Newman seems to be thinking more in terms of a manuductio. I wish Pfau had pushed further here, and had unlocked some more of Newman’s methodological potential here. What would it look like to choose this other, “manuductial” strategy of critiquing modernity today?

Further un-realised potential of Newman’s methodological account lies in the way Newman regards the movement of an idea as inter-subjective. If the focal point of the historical developments “remain[s] perforce elusive to the individual and communal agents instrumental to its advancement” (63), then the influence of a certain author on the development of an idea might be more complicated than either building it up or facilitating its disaggregation. This means that it becomes difficult over-simplistically to pigeonhole historical protagonists—an insight which could have potentially allowed for a more complex narrative in Pfau’s parts 2 and 3. Someone might contribute to the development of an idea not only without fully grasping the “essence” of it, but also without unambiguously furthering either its progress or its decline. There is a need for attending to this ambiguity in every single author—something which Pfau’s narrative fails to do by depicting figures such as William of Ockham and Thomas Hobbes unequivocally as “destroyers.”

Such an ambiguity, moreover, is not only present in historic figures, but also in us. This is another theme that could have been drawn out more clearly in Minding the Modern: the need for a praxis of introspection, which involves a noetic metanoia, and the cultivation of virtues that guide our attention. Such a praxis, however, is perforce theological. Pfau’s decision to end his book with a part on Coleridge’s theological speculations, I contend, is implicitly challenging the modern divide between philosophy and theology (as much as the divide between practical and theoretical reason).

To make more explicit what is at stake here: Pfau’s quest to save the humanities from their contemporary methodological impasse can be solved, I would argue, by a paradigm shift presently happening in the humanities, namely, the overcoming of the modern divide between faith and reason. There is great resistance in parts of the humanities against this, and indeed against anything that seems to subvert analytic rationalities: The pathos of allegedly value-neutral proceduralism has migrated from science into the humanities, as Pfau rightly observes (510). In contrast to this, as Johannes Hoff has written recently in a Syndicate response, “premodern philosophers resisted the inclination to draw a clear demarcation line between the scientific cultivation of rational arguments and the religious cultivation of the symbolically charged spiritual practices that guide our attention.” 2 To cultivate such practices, and thereby to acknowledge that “every knowledge starts with the commitment to a truth that transcends our reflexive comprehension,”3 would be the radical hermeneutical involvement that Pfau himself calls for. It is not enough to stop with a “lucid and articulate mourning.” Pfau’s romanticism, I believe, prevents him from fully awakening the potential slumbering in his methodological commitments, namely, to overcome the modern divide of faith and reason through integrating the cultivation of rational arguments with the religious cultivation of a spiritual praxis. Doing this would veritably recognise the transformative impact of knowledge on ourselves as ethical beings, and this would be truly radical.

  1. This essay is an elaboration of my review of Minding the Modern, which is forthcoming in Reviews in Religion and Theology 22, no. 3. My thanks to Dr. Philip McCosker.


  3. Ibid.

  • Thomas Pfau

    Thomas Pfau


    Narrating Modernity: Diagnosis or Remedy

    I wish to thank Silvianne Bürki for her thoughtful reflections on my book’s methodological objectives. Her opening remarks capture and restate my concerns and objectives with humanistic inquiry very well indeed. This is especially true as regards my discussion of Newman, whose theory of development I have recently engaged in more detail.1 Bürki draws attention to my concern with keeping humanistic inquiry distinct from a procedural, detached, and value-neutral concept of information. While the latter has long held sway in the empirical sciences, and with good reason, its transfer onto interpretive modes of inquiry strikes me as an unwise and regrettable entailment of nineteenth-century historicism. Like Newman in his 1841 essay, “The Tamworth Reading Room,” I reject assumptions to the effect that the sheer accumulation of quantifiable or empirical information will eo ipso result in a narrative of human progress or, simply put, that in the realm of human inquiry “more” and “better” are fully convertible. The telos of interpretive knowledge, I argue, cannot be confined to objective, verifiable information, just as those pursuing it cannot be wholly detached from what they ultimately seek. For hermeneutic activity constitutes a quest, not for information but for meaning—that is, for symbolic patterns whose hortatory, perhaps even transformative significance for the individuals and communities reached by them is both understood and experienced (cf. MTM 34). Bürki is right to identify this claim as central to my overall argument and, also, to question where acceptance of it might lead us.

    Hence, in asking how Minding the Modern “perform[s] its own methodological claims,” Bürki notes that I “prefer the tradition from Plato up to Aquinas,” that is, a tradition quite distant from post-seventeenth-century conceptions of method. In response, I would observe that my investment is in a mode of reasoning that extends from Platonic dialectics to Scholastic disputatio, an intrinsically narrative conception of knowledge informed by an awareness and acceptance of its evaluative, therapeutic, and/or transformative dimension. Minding the Modern is above all an attempt at revisiting that tradition and scrutinizing how humanistic inquiry fares when philosophical concerns with goodness, virtue, wisdom, and judgment are displaced by variously skeptical, naturalist, and reductionist epistemologies “more set upon concluding rightly rather than on right conclusions” (as Newman was to put it). For that inquiry to proceed, it could not simply rely on the prevailing modern frameworks that have negatively prejudged or repudiated outright Platonic, Aristotelian, and Scholastic models of will, person, judgment, and action for the past four centuries or so. Instead, Minding the Modern means to retrace the complex and necessarily conflicted narrative of how key concepts of human agency (will, action, judgment, habit, person) came to constitute themselves, were refracted and deepened in the course of their transmission and, more recently, came to be contested (or unilaterally disavowed) by modern naturalist and reductionist epistemologies.

    My overarching concern thus has been to understand what may have been lost (or gained) by modernity’s construal of humanistic inquiry on a template of progress, emancipation, and self-sufficiency, and to consider whether modernity’s variously diffident or iconoclastic outlook on “premodern” inquiry may have truly benefited our own conceptions of the human or, alternatively, have rendered them stunted and incoherent. In scrutinizing the uneven genesis and the subsequent, complex interaction of Platonic, Aristotelian, Augustinian, and Thomist traditions, as well as their eventual contestation by modern epistemologies, Minding the Modern does not mean to be an “original” book in the ordinary sense—viz., as proposing yet another critique and overcoming of various intellectual precursors. Indeed, seen against the anxious professionalism of contemporary academia forever hankering after the next “critical intervention,” Minding the Modern is deliberately, even flamboyantly unoriginal. Thus Bürki is right to appraise my argument as “not hermeneutically radical at all” but, somewhat in the mode of Milbank or MacIntyre, to be acutely doubtful about the possibility or desirability of a strictly procedural and value-neutral form of intellectual historiography.

    For these reasons, I ought to clarify my intent where Bürki ponders my notion of the “transformative impact” of intellectual practice, a phrase that certainly ought not to be taken in any affective, charismatic, or quasi-evangelizing sense. In attempting a modest and patient retrieval of what I consider a profound, rich, and deep intellectual legacy, Minding the Modern most definitely does not seek to effect any sudden conversions among its intended audience. Rather, by exploring how philosophical and theological conceptions of will, action, judgment, and recognition of personhood gradually took shape over the course of more than fifteen hundred years, my narrative seeks to accentuate our own, necessarily humbling role in the transmission and development of ideas and concepts such as enable us to develop a coherent account of ourselves as rational and responsible agents. Thus we do not dominate the history but are formed in progressively fuller ways by gradually coming to learn and inhabit it. As T. S. Eliot puts it so hauntingly, “We are born with the dead: / See, they return, and bring us with them.”

    In the second part of her response, Bürki raises questions about whether and to what extent Minding the Modern is a narrative of decline and whether the elision of premodern conceptions of human agency over the past several centuries constitutes an irreversible development or not. I agree that, more than Coleridge’s late writings, my own argument tends to put greater stress on the “opacity of history to the individual” and that intellectual enterprises such as my own, or similar narratives by Taylor, MacIntyre, or Dupré should not be expected to reverse that predicament but, at best, can help us articulate it. As Bürki summarizes my stance,

    Pfau is saying that to be transformed and impacted upon as ethical beings by the knowledge we acquire would mean to recognise the loss of teleology and the disintegration of practical reasoning in modernity, to articulate and deplore it. If I understand Pfau correctly here, I am left wondering whether this is all that can be said and done.

    In that regard, I am intrigued to find Bürki connect “a need for attending to . . . ambiguity in every single author” and “the need for a praxis of introspection,” one which she regards as “perforce theological.” Now, I will readily admit that in the case of Ockham and Hobbes, my argument does not offer much by way of ambiguity, and that particularly Ockham’s legacy is indeed more complex and ambiguous than my rather too elliptical engagement of his Quodlibital Questions acknowledges. Yet in the case of Hobbes, I find it rather more difficult to see this dynamic at work. For one thing, Hobbes himself seems intent on expunging ambiguity in the name of efficient control, an objective given programmatic expression by the way he delimits political meanings by imposing proper names. Persistent attempts by some contemporary writers (Victoria Kahn comes to mind) to reclaim Hobbes as the progenitor of a modern secular, liberal-pluralist, and benevolent political order strike me as both hermeneutically naïve and politically irresponsible in the extreme.2 I would maintain, then, that as regards the “need for attending to ambiguity” of which Bürki speaks, the hermeneutic prompts for doing so have to issue from the language of the text under consideration, rather than coming to us as some generic and a priori injunction; and when it comes to discerning the underlying intention of Hobbes’ Leviathan and how that intention is rhetorically performed, I find there to be very little indeed by way of structural ambiguity.

    As regards Bürki’s insistence on “the need for a praxis of introspection” and “noetic metanoia,” I take myself to be for the most part in agreement with her. My discussion of Coleridge’s commitment to introspection, which in his case is deeply informed by Platonic and Neoplatonic motifs, was meant to affirm as much. Take, for example, Coleridge’s marvelous discussion of the word parakupsas in the Epistle of St. James (cf. MTM 531f.). Yet, at the same time we ought to be alert, as Coleridge’s erratic biography certainly shows him to have been, to the vicissitudes of introspection, such as its variously paralyzing or narcissistic tendencies. Knowing all we do about Coleridge, we cannot but wonder whether his fascination with the edifying (if also unfathomable) “act of looking down into” one’s self and his perennially irresolute and often self-destructive habits might not be part of one and the same constellation. Thus, while Bürki is right to insist on the ultimately theological bearings of introspection, I am increasingly concerned (more now than when writing the book) that introspection may come into conflict with the rationality of habitual, teleologically ordered practice, or that its often wayward and narcissistic fixations may end up being substituted for a rational practice that, at its fullest, has something necessarily impersonal about it.

    Finally, let me briefly respond to Bürki’s more hopeful claim that there is “a paradigm shift presently happening in the humanities, namely the overcoming of the modern divide between faith and reason” and that, consequently, my narrative—not of nostalgia but of “lucid and articulate mourning” (MTM 70)—fails to honor “the potential slumbering in [its] methodological commitments.” Now, I confess that the paradigm shift of which Bürki speaks is news to me. Having read quite widely across philosophy, theology, aesthetics, and literary studies, I simply see no evidence of it, and Bürki really does not provide any. Naturally, I wish I could share Bürki’s optimism here. Yet having spent nearly three decades in the Humanities, I neither see nor expect realistic prospects for a major sea-change of the kind Bürki claims is currently emerging in the academy. Part of my (seemingly indelible) Romantic outlook on humanistic inquiry may indeed be that I am able to place trust only in individual efforts, while remaining acutely doubtful about the efficacy and integrity of more corporate and professional modes of inquiry and their seasonal euphoria about the latest “paradigm shift.” At the same time, I don’t find that situation particularly distressing. On the contrary, there is a certain welcome clarity to be derived from knowing that all genuine hermeneutic (and potentially transformative) practice is a necessarily uncertain endeavor pursued by individuals in substantive and undesigning exchange with one another, rather than professionals corporately pledging to advancing a specific research agenda. If anything, an unsentimental awareness of our culture’s neo-pagan character is a good thing; and that includes being fully aware of the intense and likely irreversible fusion of intellectual, professional, and economic pursuits within the academy and in the corporate world sponsoring what, without any sense of irony, continues to be called “higher education.” For to find the labor of thought unburdened by misplaced utopian notions of the difference humanistic and theological inquiry can possibly make is a crucial first step towards preserving and enhancing its scope and integrity.

    1. https:/C:/dev/home/

    2. See my discussion of competing accounts of Hobbes at The Immanent Frame.

    • Eugene Webb

      Eugene Webb


      Newman and Manuductial Strategy

      I appreciated your discussion of Cardinal Newman and your suggestion that an approach like Pfau’s might make greater use of his thought, and I was intrigued especially by your comment that “Newman seems to be thinking more in terms of a manuductio. I wish Pfau had pushed further here, and had unlocked some more of Newman’s methodological potential here. What would it look like to choose this other, ‘manuductial’ strategy of critiquing modernity today?” Perhaps you could explain further what you mean by “manuductio” and what such a “manuductial” strategy might involve.

    • Silvianne Burki

      Silvianne Burki


      On Scaffoldings

      Thank you for your comment, Eugene (if I may)! Let me try to explain it further: I made the remark above in the context of the question of how we come to understand and indeed embrace a certain position, i.e. in this case, a critical stance towards modernity. Assuming that our aim is to evoke such a critical reflexive stance in our readers (which I would contend is Thomas Pfau’s aim, even though he is so cautious about not being “utopian”), how do we proceed? Is it by describing an alternative vision to modernity? Or is there another way?

      In the first case, we most likely write some kind of genealogy: We tell a narrative of how and why modernity has come to be as it is, and at the same time establish that things didn’t have to turn out the way they have. Such a narration goes beyond a misconstrued (and very modern) understanding of history as something that can be construed “neutrally”, since it clearly takes sides. Yet, I contend, it nonetheless retains, in the status of the narrator, an element of a punctiliar modern understanding of the thinking self. This is because the narrator, by surveying the ups and downs of the history of an idea is perforce in an elevated, indeed somewhat panoptic position. Will such a survey achieve the result of challenging its readers’ stance towards modernity? I think that such a narration will leave a number of its readers unmoved, since they can take a similarly detached position to the narrator’s and either think that what they read does not affect them, or simply produce an alternative genealogy .

      Given this, is there an alternative to “doing” genealogies? It is here where I think manuduction comes in. Manuduction means of course “leading by the hand”, and a “manuductial” strategy of critiquing modernity would be to lead one’s readers by the hand into seeing the world anew. It would mean that a text, if read rightly, takes its readers on a journey, or makes them part of the movement it is performing. Such a text does not so much describe why one framework is superior to another, but perform it, thereby instructing its readers how they are to read it, as it were. The form of a text, and the way it involves its readers thus become crucially important.

      I am not saying, however, that the text becomes the ultimate telos in and of itself. It points to a reality beyond itself – and this is in accordance with the use of “manuductio” by the Christian tradition. For the latter, “manuductio” is the way in which the role of philosophy in the exposition of the doctrine of faith is framed. For in matters of faith, the question posed above – how do we come to understand and embrace a certain position – becomes even more complex: How does finite reason understand what transcends the finite? And, concomitantly, what is the role of reason on the path to the beatific vision?

      For the Christian tradition, humans can never attain the ultimate realities by themselves, through their own their finite reason. Rather, the beatific vision is a gift of grace. Intellectual endeavour and reasoning is nonetheless not futile, since it has a crucial role to play as a “handmaiden”. As Rudi Te Velde puts it: “By what is known through natural reason, the human intellect is led more easily to that which is above reason.” (Aquinas on God, 30) In this manuduction, rational arguments thus lead us closer to the heavenly realities, even if the guide, viz. reason, together with language itself, ultimately fail to grasp them. Both are scaffoldings which will ultimately collapse, and yet they still help us ascend.

Eugene Webb


Recovering Paths of Mystery

THIS IS A WELCOME book and a much needed one. The scale is epic, and the subject matter is of the utmost importance. Since I agree with the author on all the points of his basic argument, I will try only to offer a few observations that I hope may usefully supplement his own interpretations and perhaps extend them a little to take into account some further aspects of the issues he analyzes so well.

Perhaps the simplest way to epitomize the main point of Pfau’s comprehensive and wonderfully detailed analysis of the tradition we are all still engaged in and wrestling with in our various ways is to say that Pfau thinks the central problem is one of cultural amnesia, by which key understandings of fundamental issues of human life—will, purpose, freedom, ethics and their relation to possibilities of human fulfillment and ultimate meaning—have been lost sight of and forgotten. This has both caused and been caused by various forms of reductionism that leave out important aspects of the full reality of human existence, especially that aspect that Saint Thomas Aquinas and other theologians of the earlier theological era before Ockham, Autrecourt, et al., called synderesis, which Pfau says, “names the fact that we are not simply neutral and arbitrarily located in a world but that . . . we have that world by being intentionally oriented toward it as interpretive, evaluative, and responsible human beings.” He also describes synderesis as “an awareness not of this or that particular right or wrong (which is what conscience pronounces) but of the ways in which the distinction itself is latently and indelibly inscribed within the human person.”

In the last one hundred pages or so of the book, Pfau also offers an extensive discussion of the ways this aspect of human personhood relates to ways of understanding the doctrine of the Trinity, with special—and I think very appropriate—reference to the religious thought of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whom I also consider a very important, though unfortunately neglected, religious thinker. Since this particular topic—that is, the symbolism of the Triune God—is one that has especially interested me and on which I have recently published a book myself, I will begin my comments with a few observations that relate to that.

To begin with, I think Pfau is quite right about the immense cultural shift that took place in the fourteenth century with the rise and eventual ascendance of nominalist patterns of thinking, but I also think the cultural amnesia involved in that had much earlier roots, some of which directly pertain to the trinitarian symbolism. Pfau focuses especially on the way that amnesiac loss of meaning took place when the tradition that he describes as running from Plato and Aristotle through Aquinas was displaced and largely forgotten in world of the via moderna from the fourteenth century on. I would like to suggest myself that there were earlier amnesias that were equally crucial.

I am thinking of two in particular. One is the tradition of the Eastern Christian world, which was almost entirely forgotten by Western Christians except for some fragments (such as the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Definition of the Faith), which were themselves read through Western spectacles. The other is the tradition of imagery and symbolism embodied in the religion of Israel and the Hebrew Bible.

I realize that this last comment might sound rather shocking or even obviously false, since Aquinas makes many references to Greek Patristic thinkers and all Western theologians have drawn extensively on the Hebrew Bible, but I will try to explain briefly why I say this. As an example of a fragmentary memory of Greek Patristic sources read through Western spectacles, I suggest one take a look at Aquinas’s little-read, but telling, De erroribus Graecorum, written to show that the Eastern Church had completely misunderstood the Christian religion. I could go into detail about that, but space here is limited, so I will simply go back to Augustine and cite his own words in De Trinitate, 3.1.1, 
where he tells his readers that although he knows that most of the discussion leading to the formulation of the final version of the trinitarian Creed (at Constantinople in 381), took place in Greek, “Let them also bear in mind, that the writings which we have read on these subjects have not been sufficiently explained in the Latin tongue, or they are not available, or at least it was difficult for us to find them; nor are we so familiar with Greek, as to be in any way capable of reading and understanding such books on these subjects in that language.” Augustine assumed that what those writers were mainly doing was speculating about what there might be three of in the one God, and his own speculation that these three “somethings” were analogous to human memory, reason, and will eventually became virtual dogma in the West. And it is true that there were speculations of that sort in the East as well as the West. But there was also a greater attention in the East to the narrative character of the symbolism of Father, Son, and Spirit in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, especially the identification of Israel as the son of God, called by the Father into a filial relationship that Israel was constantly falling away from and constantly being called back to. For the earliest Christians, Jesus was the one faithful Israelite in whom that calling was truly fulfilled, once and for all. One of the principal images for this way of interpreting Jesus’s sonship to God is the story of his baptism, in which the Spirit is described as descending on Jesus and resting or abiding on him (e.g., John 1:32: “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him.”) John of Damascus’s commentary on the Nicene Creed draws on this same image when he summarizes the opening of the creed: “We likewise believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and abides in the Son . . .”

The continuing importance of this imagery for the Eastern Christian tradition’s understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity can be seen in the way Photius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, appealed to the image of Jesus’s baptism when he set out in the ninth century in his On the Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit to refute the Carolingian change in the creed from “and in the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father” to “. . . who proceeds from the Father and the Son.”

The Carolingian creed’s interpolated filioque (“and from the Son”) had the effect of making Jesus into a superhuman being equivalent to the Father in generating the very being of the Spirit. This was useful to Charlemagne and his court in two momentous ways: (1) since Charlemagne was for them the chief representative of Jesus on earth, exalting Jesus’s status exalted that of Charlemagne; and (2) it cast the entire Eastern Christian tradition, with its supposedly defective creed, as heretical and thereby legitimated Charlemagne’s claim to be the only rightful claimant to the office of Roman Emperor (against his rivals in Constantinople).

Pfau frequently, and very appropriately, refers to the historical role of the lust for power that Augustine called libido dominandi. In the case of the Carolingian attempt to claim the imperial title and the use of religious difference to cast his rivals as “manifest heretics” (in the words of one of Charlemagne’s bishops, Paulinus of Aquileia) we see a prime example of that. The significance of the Carolingian effort to gain both political and religious preeminence for Charlemagne extends well beyond his own reign and that of his heirs, especially because after his death his realm was divided among his sons, which not only generated rivalry among them but also set up a situation in which the medieval popes would begin to claim the status of vicar of Christ that had belonged to Charlemagne. This led to papal claims to both political power in the West and to monarchic authority over all the bishops of the East—which was as large a factor in the breach between Eastern and Western Christendom as was the change in doctrine.

A few further comments on the role libido dominandi seems to have played in some of the historical events Pfau relates: Pfau interprets Aquinas as the culminating figure in the earlier tradition that nominalism broke with, and in many respects he was. But another way to read the story of what happened in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries would be to say that there were aspects of Aquinas’s own tradition that bore the seeds of what was to come. Let me explain. Aquinas was the greatest figure of the medieval Dominican order. His aim was to develop a way of doing theology that could fight heresy by the gentle coercion of logic, as a (certainly preferred) supplement to the rougher coercion of physical torture (for which Aquinas also provided a justification in case logical persuasion did not work). The Dominican order was founded by St. Dominic at the time of the Albigensian controversy (and subsequent Occitanian crusade) in southern France. Aquinas is a rather ambiguous figure in this respect. He appreciated the spiritual tradition that had thought faith could not be coerced, but he also continued the efforts of Dominic and his order to find a way to coerce it, using theological logic as a virtual weapon. It seems to me no accident that once St. Thomas and his colleagues started this effort, a parallel use of logical weaponry on the part of Ockham and his heirs might cause the Western theological tradition, which had earlier, like that in the Christian East, been a tradition of prayer and contemplation, to become a sometimes bloody field of polemics. And it is worth remembering that Ockham was not only important for the impetus he gave nominalism but also for the impetus he gave to the conciliar movement that arose in reaction to the papacy’s increasing assertion of absolute power.

I will mention just two other topics regarding which forgetfulness of the Eastern side of the Christian tradition led to some of the Western developments that Pfau laments: theological anthropology and human evil. These are closely related because Augustine’s idea of original sin has had a strong formative influence on the Western way of thinking about theological anthropology. In trying to find an explanation for human evil, Augustine speculated that Adam’s sin cut humanity off from any direct experience of divine presence in this life—a fundamental flaw in humanity as such that would be inherited by every human being descending from Adam and that would give each of them an innate tendency to sin. As Pfau makes clear, this is an important factor in the currents of thought he analyzes.

In the Eastern tradition, on the other hand, where Augustine was scarcely known at all and was never an important influence, the basic tendency in theological anthropology was to think of human beings as made up of body, soul, and Holy Spirit. This is the basis for a major theme of Eastern Christian theology that has tended to make Western theologians uncomfortable (and sometimes to suspect the Easterners of pantheism): theosis (deification). St. Gregory Palamas, probably the principal figure in articulating that tradition, said for example, “the essence of God is everywhere, for, as it is said, ‘the Spirit fills all things,’ according to essence. Deification is likewise everywhere, ineffably present in the essence and inseparable from it, as its natural power.”

Regarding Adam’s sin, in the Greek patristic tradition one finds Irenaeus of Lyons saying, “man was a child; and his mind was not yet fully mature; and thus he was easily led astray by the deceiver.” The idea of inherent sinfulness deriving from Adam is quite foreign, as in Pseudo-Macarius: “it is not true, as some maintain who are led astray by error, that the human being is irremediably dead and can no longer do anything good. A small child is incapable of anything; it cannot run to its mother on its own legs; it tumbles on the ground, cries out, sobs, calls out to her. and she is gentle with it. . . . God loves us and he behaves like her toward the soul that seeks him and cries out to him.”

This does not mean, however, that sin is less real for Eastern Christian thinkers or that they are less aware of the importance of the libido dominandi that Augustine astutely identified at the heart of sin. But in the East the analysis of sin is less speculative and more grounded in psychological reflection on its present experience, as when Maximus the Confessor says, “There are three great, fundamental evils, and one can affirm quite simply that they are the source of every other evil: ignorance [agnoia], egoistic self-love [philautia], and tyranny [tyrannis] . . . for from ignorance of God comes egoistic self-love, and from this comes tyranny towards one’s fellows.” By ignorance of God (agnoia theou), I should note, Maximus does not mean ignorance of propositional knowledge about God but of the experiential knowledge that is the fruit of living in Christ, knowing from within, experientially rather than speculatively, the love (agape) that is the very being of God, which was embodied in Jesus and becomes further embodied in those who love with his love.

There is much more that could be said about these forgotten alternative ways of understanding the Christian tradition that so many of the thinkers Pfau discusses have either rejected or distorted. Perhaps Pfau’s brilliant analysis of the evolution and devolution of Western thought will stimulate some to look further into such alternatives. He certainly identifies the key problems, and he does an admirable job of clarifying the issues.

  • Thomas Pfau

    Thomas Pfau


    Alternate Genealogies: Eastern Theology as a Corrective?

    As with all the responses to my book published at this forum, I find myself greatly benefiting from Eugene Webb’s comments, which, by and large, open a complementary perspective to the one developed in Minding the Modern. His suggestion that “the cultural amnesia,” whose emergence I mainly locate in late-Scholastic nominalism, “had much earlier roots” is certainly intriguing. Webb’s observations about Western Christianity’s prolonged indifference to, or outright dismissal of, key tenets of Eastern Orthodox Christianity might conceivably have altered my own argument’s overall shape if that line of inquiry had been pursued. At the same time, Minding the Modern tends to focus on a particular, evidently Western tradition of philosophical and theological inquiry and its eventual contestation, or unilateral repudiation, by a modern secular and self-certifying model of inquiry and its attendant, naturalistic conception of what constitutes proof. One particularly troubling entailment of that shift concerns a gradual atrophying of our conceptual resources, a “progressive amnesia” intrinsic to modern intellectual culture of the past four centuries; and as Cora Diamond has pointed out, the question we have had to confront of late is whether that process of forgetting has advanced so far that its deleterious effects may no longer register, or whether a sense of what has been lost can still be articulated in meaningful ways.

    Now, as for Webb’s observation of an Eastern Christian tradition “almost entirely forgotten by Western Christians,” the conditions of that forgetting strike me as rather different than those I trace in my book. For with few exceptions, and no doubt as a result of the sheer challenge of disseminating and debating ideas across the vast expanse of the Mediterranean and Northern European worlds of late antiquity, the scenario Webb describes might be understood as a parallel development rather than a rejection or even a gradual forgetting of one theological tradition by another. Hence the scenario to which Webb refers strikes me as quite different from the overt and insistent antagonism between the intellectual traditions explored in my book. For within the West, one can detect a pattern, observable well before the advent of Christianity, whereby schools of inquiry (Platonists, Sophists, Stoics, Academics, Stoics, etc.) conduct a sustained and focused debate and, in so doing, begin to trace what at first seems but a difference of emphasis back to an underlying incommensurability of perspective. Perhaps the most famous, and undeniably productive, case in point is that of Plato, whose conception of rational, responsible, and self-aware human agents had been dialectically shaped by his ongoing struggle with the sophists. It’s less a conflict over specific, evidently divergent conclusions than a struggle over the very nature and purpose of philosophy and our necessarily imperfect grasp of a transcendent good and their bearing on a rational and responsible ordering of the polis.

    Yet even so, Webb’s observation remains conceptually relevant to my arguments in Minding the Modern. For his juxtaposition of two cultures of reasoning—one richly figurative, narrative, and focused on process, and another one more abstract and formal-syllogistic in kind—does indeed appear to inform the unsettled theological landscape of the Patristic era. Webb’s suggestion that Eastern Christianity exhibited “greater attention . . . to the narrative character” of Trinitarian symbolism strikes me as particularly intriguing and as provocative in its own right. From Philo to Maximus the Confessor, Eastern Christianity’s investment of scriptural imagery and symbolism with a strong anagogical conception stands indeed in some contrast with developments in the West, though exactly when that bifurcation became irreversible remains a matter of some debate. While the two models of theological reasoning clearly begin to diverge in (very) late antiquity, a genuine break can probably not be located earlier than the fourteenth century. Cued by Erich Auerbach’s thesis concerning the co-presence of narrative-historical and spiritual-anagogical meanings in the holographic structure of figural language, Hans Frei’s Eclipse of Biblical Narrative has located the final breakdown of that model only in post-Reformation Europe.

    Still, as Charles Taylor, John Milbank, and Louis Dupré have argued (whom in this regard I follow), the shift in question was significantly prepared for, if not per se intended, by Ockham’s legalistic and abstract construal of God as an omnipotent and unaccountable super-agent. In light of these, to me more conclusive, later developments I am not entirely convinced that the Carolingian interpolation of the filioque already constitutes the decisive break with Eastern Christianity’s narrative understanding of the Trinity that Webb sees there. For one thing, there is a strong narrative dimension to Western (Augustininian) theology, evident in his homilies no less than in the Confessions and the Civitas Dei; and that dynamic, process-like character of theological reasoning remains powerfully at work in Aquinas’ Summa, whose argumentative sequence involves us in a movement of increasing concreteness culminating in his Christology.

    At the same time, the specter of ecclesial structures and spiritual practices succumbing to the seemingly implacable libido dominandi of its imperial saeculum, a constant vexation to Augustine, does not only shape Carolingian culture. For the preceding century and a half had witnessed an analogous, triangulated struggle between the emperor, the episcopacy, and the monastic orders that had nearly destroyed an already embattled Byzantine empire. Thus Photius’ criticism of the filioque formula should probably be read in the context of the fierce political and intra-ecclesiastic struggle over the spiritual legitimacy and political efficacy of religious images that had consumed the Byzantine empire since AD 726. Just as some of Charlemagne’s bishops sought to exalt the monarch “as the chief representative of Jesus on Earth,” so the Byzantine episcopacy—largely controlled by Leo III and Leo V and thus beholden to these emperors’ strident iconoclasm—had found itself in sharp conflict with widespread, regionally inflected forms of iconodulia for which the monastic orders continued to provide robust theological defense (e.g., St. John Damascene, St. Theodore the Studite). If anything, the Eastern Church witnessed a far more protracted “effort to gain both political and religious preeminence” for its emperors, as Webb puts it with reference to Charlemagne’s undeniably ruthless ecclesiastic politics. Indeed, it was none other than Photius himself who was to proclaim the end of that conflict with his March AD 867 homily in which he exults the restoration of images at St. Sophia and insists on the narrative efficacy of eikones that “impel the spectators to unhesitating assent.”

    Even so, Webb’s point concerning the increasingly divergent models of Eastern and Western theological anthropology remains fundamentally valid and important. In particular, I take his point about the more fully integrated conception of the human being (body, soul, spirit) in Eastern Christianity and, conversely, the susceptibility of an Augustinian account of sin—readily observable in Luther’s writings—to regress into the very Manicheanism that Augustine himself had worked so hard to overcome. Yet there are outliers in either sphere who, I think, are bound to complicate the sharp line between East and West that Webb is drawing. Take Bonaventure’s narrative template of an eschatological Itinerarium Mentis in Deum, a work that strikes me as sharing more with Plotinus, Gregory of Nyssa, and Maximus than with the static, oppositional, and speculatively sin-focused approach that Webb regards as the signature of post-Carolingian, “Western” theology. Similarly, Julian of Norwich, for example, whose conception of sin as “behovely” strikes a decidedly un-Augustinian note; indeed, the emergent and ambient culture of the devotio moderna to which Julian belongs seems informed by a similar “theological anthropology” that Webb identifies above all with the writings of the Fathers.

    Like Webb, I find Maximus in particular to be a uniquely compelling, bridge-building presence in what, at the beginning of the seventh century, is shaping up to be an increasingly divided and divisive landscape of theological reflection, both internally and in relation to perennially ruthless conceptions of political power that prevail both in the embattled Eastern and the recently collapsed Western empire. Webb’s quote from Maximus concerning the twofold “ignorance of God” (agnoia theou) exemplifies the latter’s capacity for a nuanced and integrative, rather than disjunctive, approach to theological reflection. It is this capacious approach, rightly admired and admirably captured in Hans Urs von Balthasar’s study of Maximus, which centuries later expires in the rigid logical formalism on which Ockham, Hobbes, and their voluntarist heirs hinge their dystopian conception of absolute power. In stressing, contrariwise, how for Maximus the knowledge cultivated by theological reflection necessarily entwines an experiential and a propositional dimension, Webb offers both much insight and encouragement for my next research project, briefly sketched in the closing pages of my book and some subsequent essays.1 It is in that project that I hope to attend more fully to the distinctive and profound theology of Eastern Christianity whose elision from Minding the Modern he understandably regrets.

    • Eugene Webb

      Eugene Webb


      Many Honest Consciences

      It has been very interesting as well as a great pleasure to read not only Pfau’s extremely important Minding the Modern but also the various insightful and probing contributions by the contributors to this forum and Pfau’s thoughtful response to each of them. Because I regret that I will be traveling during most of the time of the symposium and because in trying, probably a little too hard, to keep within the 5 page guidelines for responses, I may have failed to articulate my own point of view fully, I am going to take the liberty of offering now a little further clarification. It sounded from Professor Pfau’s comments on what I said (when he rightly points out that there was plenty of libido dominandi also in the East Orthodox tradition) that in speaking for something in the Eastern Christian tradition that became largely lost to (or perhaps I should say deemphasized in) the West, I may have given the impression of being an apologist for Eastern Orthodoxy. That may be the understandable result of my not explaining adequately what I meant by the difference I see in the two strands of Christian tradition, so I should explain that further. (And perhaps I should even add that I am not myself Eastern Orthodox and fully agree with Pfau about the role of the lust for power in the East as well as in the West, although I will also try to explain what I think is important about the difference between the ways that too has played out in both parts of the Christian world.)

      To begin with, my particular interest is in the different ways the symbolism of the Triune God has been developed in East and West. The crucial issue, which I did not mention in my paper but discussed at length in my book, In Search of the Triune God: The Christian Paths of East and West, has to do with the difference between an experiential and a speculative symbolism—the difference between, on the one hand, reflection on the experience of living “in Christ,” in the Son’s filial relation to the self-transcending love (agape) that is the source (Father) of all that is and that has created the world for the sake of incarnation everywhere and in everything by breathing (Spirit) that love into the creature called into sonship and daughterhood to that source, and, on the other hand, a speculation about what there might be three of in God, considered as an object remote from experience. I said in my paper that “there was … a greater attention in the East to the narrative character of the symbolism of Father, Son, and Spirit in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, especially the identification of Israel as the son of God, called by the Father into a filial relationship that Israel was constantly falling away from and constantly being called back to.” As the early Christians developed this symbolism, Jesus was the one faithful Israelite in whom that calling was truly fulfilled (as Jean Daniélou put it, for Irenaeus, “Jesus was God’s one great success”), and the Christian community, including both Jews and gentiles, was in the process of becoming a new, fulfilled Israel by their incorporation into his life and the filial relation that was its essence. They saw themselves as living in this unfolding story and thereby knowing God in Christ from within, through participation.

      There were also Latin thinkers before Augustine who leaned toward a speculative approach, and some of that can be found in the East as well, but on the whole the East remained closer to the Biblical imagery of the Spirit proceeding from the Father and abiding in the Son, while in the West the immensely powerful influence of Augustine and his speculations made the speculative approach dominant, and contributed greatly I think to the tendency to think of God as a distant authority mediated through more proximate authorities (monarch, institutional church, scripture, etc.) in what has had a virtually inevitable tendency to devolve into a top-down command system.

      In this connection I might comment on the divergence between Pfau and Grosso over the idea of monotheism, since I think we can see sketched in Augustine’s later thought the problem Grosso is pointing to when he speaks of monotheism positing “a much greater distinction between God and the world” and emphasizing divine sovereignty in a way that becomes the basis of “increasingly voluntaristic accounts of divine action in the world.” Personally I side with Pfau in his defense of the idea of monotheism, because what Grosso refers to as “radical monotheism” seems far from what H. R. Niebuhr meant by that phrase, and I think most Biblical interpreters would side with the way interpreters like Niebuhr and Walter Brueggeman view the prophetic tradition regarding monotheism as moving beyond the conception of God as a single, supremely and exclusively powerful deity (a kind of henotheism with the other gods eliminated) toward the Christian identification of God with agape as such. (John’s “God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him” [1 John 4:16], is itself a succinct statement of the experiential understanding of the Triune God I have been referring to.)

      But Grosso does have an important point. The tradition that runs from ancient Israel through Christianity in all of its forms has been fraught with ambiguity all along, and much of the history of that tradition has consisted of the sorting out of the various tendencies implicit in it, judging which to emphasize and develop and which to be cautious about. The potentially arbitrary voluntaristic God conceived by William of Ockham is recognizably akin to the God who ordered the Israelites to kill every man, woman, and child in Canaan and even the cattle, and that same God continue to exert a kind of magnetic pull on many imaginations (in both East and West, I might add).

      As for Augustine’s role in that evolution, his case demonstrates a similar ambiguity. If one were to read the early, more Platonic Augustine, one could hardly imagine the Augustine who later developed the idea of original sin as radically breaking the relation between God and all born under that sign so that the human race as a whole needed discipline by the scourge of a stern Father and who came to conceive ecclesiastical authority as a power to command and even physically coerce doctrinal assent and shocked some of this fellow bishops by his justification of religious persecution (see In Search of the Triune God, 130-32). Original sin also precluded an experiential understanding of the symbolism of the Triune God. In his De Trinitate, Augustine says again and again that in this life no one can really know what the doctrine of the Trinity means; rather one must believe it on the authority of scripture and of the institutional Church. Where experiential understanding is missing, the step from speculation to coercion is virtually inevitable. In my Triune God book, I talk about how this played out in Carolingian missionary theory: coerce them into baptism with little explanation of what the religion is supposed to mean, then kill them if they later decided it’s not the religion for them (Charlemagne notoriously decapitated 4,500 Saxons for this offense; see ibid., 173–75).

      The reason, however, that I think the reign of Charlemagne was such an important turning point is that the supreme power, combining both political and religious authority, that he claimed and effectively exercised (and used his interpretation of the Trinity to legitimate) subsequently became a fateful temptation to the Western church. In the East there was always an reigning emperor until 1453, and the Church could never try to claim the emperor’s authority for itself. If the Carolingians had had a tradition of primogeniture (rather than dividing Charlemagne’s domain among his sons), perhaps there would have been a chain of Western Roman emperors comparable to the Eastern ones, and the church in the West would have exalted that emperor and served as his department of rites the way the church in the East did. But what happened was that the Western church became drawn into the rivalry of the multiple Carolingian heirs to the point of developing a monarchic papal structure that tried to claim universal religious and even political authority, and this led over the centuries to a tendency of what should have been a tradition of dialogical exploration of mystery to become a monological authoritarian system that understandably provoked the kinds of rebellion that figures like Ockham, Luther, and Voltaire exemplify in their diverse ways—even if Pfau does rightly criticize them for sometimes not fully appreciating the gold that was mixed with the dross in what they were rebelling against.

      I agree with Bürki that “someone might contribute to the development of an idea not only without fully grasping the ‘essence’ of it, but also without unambiguously furthering either its progress or its decline. There is a need for attending to this ambiguity in every single author.” And I think Soni wisely suggests that to engage dialectically with a tradition we have to be open to the possibility of recognizing that it may have led us astray and may need correction. I think that an effective and persuasive advocacy of the tradition that Pfau speaks for must also include a clear understanding and frank acknowledgment of those features that have rendered it problematic for many honest consciences.

    • Thomas Pfau

      Thomas Pfau


      Response to Webb

      I thank Eugene Webb for his most helpful and clarifying second set of comments, most of which strike me as very persuasive. With regard to the perennial question of the Church’s relation to political power, I still wonder whether the difference between Carolingian and Eastern Christianity is really the decisive one, or whether the problem might not be more fundamental in kind. Eugene Webb speculates that “if the Carolingians had had a tradition of primogeniture … perhaps there would have been a chain of Western Roman emperors comparable to the Eastern one, and the church in the West would have exalted that emperor and served as his department of rites the way the church in the East did.” Perhaps. Yet I don’t see much of a difference between a church “developing a monarchic papal structure … claim[ing] universal religious and even political authority” – which is how Webb describes what transpired in the wake of Charlemagne’s reign – and an Erastian church furnishing an ostensibly separate emperor with the symbolism (in hoc signo) designed to legitimate political power and exculpate its often violent actions. Simply put, if the choice is between a monarchical papacy and an Erastianism without reserve, those on the receiving end of its policies and practices will scarcely know the difference.

      It is in the nature of institutions, the Christian Church (West or East) being a preeminent case, to remain at all times liable to what the sociologist Arnold Gehlen calls Zwecktransformationor what, more recently, has been called “mission creep.” As benevolent aims and spiritual goods initially conceived on theological grounds and, within limits, also realized experientially come under institutional control, their meaning begins to be amalgamated by second-order goods and practices having to do with the internal complexity and politics of the institution. To borrow Alasdair MacIntyre’s distinction, sooner or later the goods of efficiency will supplant those of excellence, at which point the asymmetry between spiritual meanings and institutional mechanisms, between love and politics, becomes increasingly palpable. Now I will posit, quite uncontroversially I think, that political power and institutions are inherently corrupt and corrupting, and that ecclesiastic power either assuming such power directly or, in Erastian manner, operating as one of its institutional branches will inevitably be corrupted by it. Indeed, the great gift of the Reformation to the Catholic Church thus was to create the conditions for a gradual detachment of ecclesial from worldly power, a process that was substantially completed in Europe only by the mid-nineteenth century. The remarkable flourishing and diversity of theology for the past century has arguably been a major dividend of that development.

      At the same time, if institutions of any variety tend to evolve a distinctive political culture of their own, it cannot surprise that the latter will in turn reflect back on and, not infrequently, distort and corrupt the understanding of those central goods and propositions for the sake of which the institution itself had been conceived. In this situation, the contingent rationality of institutions and their politics begins to occlude the logos to whose partial and imperfect comprehension the church had pledged itself. A voluntaristic theology such as we encounter it in Ockham is a prima facie instance of how a rationality of efficient causation begins to transmute John’s God of love into a possessor of efficient power (potentia ordinata). In Ockham and those following his line of argument, “God’s transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions.” The last observation happens to be taken from Benedict XIV’s address at the University of Regensburg (12 September 2006).1 In it, Benedict dwelt at some length (and with a sense of philological detail predictably ignored by those who reported on his speech) on the conjunction between religious violence and a creeping “dehellinization” of Western Christianity. As he argues, that process has periodically intensified, such as during the Reformation and counter-Reformation and, again in the post-Feuerbachian historicism of von Harnack. Where theological voluntarism holds sway, an uncoupling of ratio from logos is sure to ensue. And once that step is taken, it seems quite natural to suppose that “the conviction that acting unreasonably [and violently] contradicts God’s nature [had been] merely a Greek idea.”

      All this is to say that I share Eugene Webb’s sense of a “tendency of what should have been a tradition of dialogical exploration of mystery to become a monological authoritarian system.” Yet I would note that this tendency is not a historically contingent one but, rather, an intrinsic and largely inescapable feature of all the institutional (and that also means, ecclesiastic) expressions which this “exploration of mystery” is bound to take. Wayward, presumptuous, confused, and periodically violent, institutions (political and ecclesial) cannot but mirror the very fallenness of those human beings for whose remediation and guidance they have been conceived. It is an understandable impulse to want to construe this paradoxical and irresolute state of affairs as a historical accident of sorts (Webb’s “… if the Carolingians had had a tradition of primogeniture”) – a bad turn of sorts that, with more circumspection and restraint, just might have been avoided. Yet here I would beg to differ and recall one of Pascal’s brilliant paradoxes by way of arguing that the problem at stake is ontological, not historical: “If the ancient Church was in error, the Church is fallen. If she should be in error today, it is not the same thing; for she has always the superior maxim of tradition from the hand of the ancient Church; and so this submission and this conformity to the ancient Church prevail and correct all. But the ancient Church did not assume the future Church and did not consider her, as we assume and consider the ancient” (Pensées, # 867).


    • Thomas Pfau

      Thomas Pfau



      Many thanks for your many valuable comments and for this most fruitful exchange. T. P.

Vivasvan Soni


On Recovering Utopia

THOMAS PFAU’S MINDING THE MODERN is a work of breathtaking scope and staggering ambition, which narrates the vicissitudes of a number of interrelated concepts, most notably those of will and personhood, throughout a long history reaching from the Homeric epics and Aristotelian polis by way of the Stoics, Scholastics and early modern thinkers such as Hobbes and Locke, all the way to Coleridge and the nineteenth century. But his book is not a purportedly value-neutral tabulation of an endless and ultimately meaningless set of variations in concepts that we could view with dispassion or indifference. For Pfau, it is we ourselves, as persons and deliberate agents, who are at stake in these ideas, from the ways we relate to ourselves to the ways in which we encounter others and situate ourselves ethically in the world. Sharply polemical in tone, Pfau’s argument unembarrassedly and responsibly takes sides, in a way that should serve as a model for what an engaged and historically aware humanistic scholarship could look like.

Minding the Modern should compel us to revise radically our sense of what is at stake in the modernity we all so awkwardly inhabit. For better or worse, a central element in the usual accounts of modernity is the emergence of an individual and autonomous subjectivity: rational, reflective, independent, with a rich inward psychic life attuned in unprecedented ways to its own sensations and emotions. The outlines of the narrative are similar, whether the outcome is thought to be the alienated and isolated bourgeois subject, or the self-sufficient and newly empowered liberal subject of modernity. The story Pfau wants to tell is also the story of the troublingly autonomous modern individual, but because he situates this story within a much longer historical narrative, its coordinates and consequences look profoundly different than they do in the usual accounts. For Pfau, a complex, highly self-aware and dialectically self-modifying tradition of Western intellectual history had already articulated a conception of the responsible will, not as arbitrarily free but rationally self-regulating (see chapters 4 and 6), and a conception of personhood as always already relational, communal and participatory (see chapter 17). Beginning with Ockham’s disaggregation of will and reason, radicalized and secularized by Hobbes (186), we find in modern naturalist and reductionist accounts of will and personhood, not a deeper and more enriched account, but one which is significantly impoverished and symptomatically severed from its earlier history. The will, once it operates arbitrarily in voluntarist fashion, utterly separated from any ground in reason, is conceived as purely irrational and capricious, when it is not simply reactive and conditioned. And the person is flattened out into a persona or role, responding to the world but without any capacity for reflection and self-modulation beyond a purely external conditioning. Since the modern individual, as it is theorized from Hobbes and Locke onwards, lacks the capacity for reflexive self-regulation, the modern state can only understand itself as developing institutions and forms of disciplinarity to check the wayward impulses of this subject (401–2). On this account, the complex and layered forms of psychic interiority developed in the modern novel, modern psychology and phenomenology, must not be understood as typical, but rather as countercurrents or reaction-formations, attempting to restore or recover, however inadequately, the textured premodern forms of will and personhood that have all but fallen into oblivion in modernity: they are precisely attempts to mind or perhaps re-mind the modern. My thumbnail sketch cannot do justice to the argument as it is developed with complexity and precision in the book, but suffice it to say that, as counterintuitive as this argument is, it is utterly compelling as Pfau traces it through a long, uneven and magnificently detailed intellectual tradition.

Beyond this outline of the content of the argument, I would like to call attention to one other feature of the book. Minding the Modern brings to bear an extraordinary degree of philological, exegetical and hermeneutic rigor on an unimaginably wide array of texts from the archive of Western intellectual history, making it a very long book indeed. The purpose of this careful reconstruction of the history of two key concepts is not antiquarian indulgence or a mere display of erudition, nor does it mean to bludgeon us into conviction through the sheer undeniable weight of accumulated evidence. No such amassing of evidence can ever convince by itself. Rather, there is a point of profound methodological import in the form that this text takes, a point that the opening chapters on method articulate explicitly. For Pfau, concepts are not tools to be invented ex nihilo and deployed opportunistically as we need them. They are frameworks progressively and dialectically clarified within an intellectual tradition, that help us make sense of and orient ourselves in the world we inhabit (see chapter 1). The tradition out of which a concept emerges is not something to be dispensed with willy-nilly once we have understood or grasped the concept. Rather, it is only through our own personal engagement with the tradition that we can translate ourselves into these frameworks, and live them as relevant and revealing for our own lives. As such, Minding the Modern is not an Olympian or impassive history of ideas, narrated at a remove, without any investment in the positions it describes; rather, it itself engages in the very work of progressive and dialectical clarification of ideas that it views as the most vital element in intellectual history, retrieving and making relevant again for our historical moment the nearly defunct ideas of will and personhood. In other words, it performs or exemplifies the historical engagement with tradition that it also argues is the indispensable but forgotten condition of responsible knowing. In that sense, Minding the Modern is at once a deeply personal book, and yet one from which we all have so much to learn, not only about the history of our own conceptual frameworks, but also about how to bring that history to life and awareness in our own amnesic present.

In the spirit of the progressive and dialectical clarification of tradition that Pfau proposes as the very engine of intellectual history, I would like to raise a series of related questions that request further clarification but perhaps also dialectically reinflect the framework Pfau offers. The first concerns the question of modernity itself, and how one periodizes or dates the inception of modernity. Indeed, the very gesture of finding a point of inception or epochal departure is a distinctively modern one, and as Fredric Jameson notes, in his Singular Modernity, attempts to specify the onset of modernity always result in a proliferation of ever-receding starting points: 1493, 1517, 1688, 1776, 1789, and so on. In Pfau’s narrative, the point of inception is clearly marked, with Ockham’s voluntarism providing the conditions from within Scholasticism for Hobbes’s radically nominalist, reductionist and naturalistic account of the will. Yet, precisely because Pfau narrates the movement of intellectual history so dialectically, it can often seem as though, rather than the story of a progressively clarified co-implication of will and reason, which is then gradually eclipsed and obscured by the modern legacy of voluntarism, reductionism and naturalism, a rather different story might be told with the same materials, a story about the perennial opposition of two explanatory accounts of human persons and the world, one transcendent and normative, the other immanent and reductionist, but with the two co-present at every given historical moment. Thus, Pfau himself alerts us to the early atomists Leucippus, Democritus, Epicurus and Lucretius (72); the opposition of Plato to the Sophists (17); Augustine and the Pelagians (17); Aquinas and Ockham (chapters 6 and 7); Hobbes and the Cambridge Platonists (chapter 8); Coleridge, Newman and the nineteenth-century novel opposing the legacy of Hobbesian reductionism (part 4) and so forth. One might plausibly continue this story into the present, noting the opposition between contemporary materialisms, on the one hand, and traditions of virtue ethics or theological inquiry on the other, or perhaps even between a Catholic traditionalism and a largely Protestant inflected modernity. In Pfau’s story, the modern reductionist or naturalist tradition doesn’t speak to or engage with its other, since it prefers its own sui generis accounts and apodictic mode of argumentation (73, 191, 227). Indeed, because reductionist theories are premised on a rejection of tradition, even their own, it would be difficult to speak of any process of dialectical clarification and progress in these accounts, only a serial reinvention of the same problems, paradoxes and impoverishments. The two modes of inquiry do not exist on the same footing: the dialectical and self-clarifying tradition is far preferable to the reductionist and apodictic mode of theorizing, even though it has been significantly eclipsed in modernity.

There are two related sets of questions I would like to pose about the historical model Pfau proposes. First set of questions: if the tradition of reductionist and naturalist accounts of the human person has always been available, what constitutes the distinctiveness of the modern rupture? What is at stake in telling this as a story of modernity, rather than of perennial opposition? And what allows us to tell the story as a narrative (albeit a declension narrative) of the emergence of modernity, when it seems like, at every instant, each tradition appears to shadow the other with a dogged persistence that seems nearly impossible to shake? However, the observation about the perpetual presence of reductionist and naturalist accounts does not only raise questions about historical periodization and the extent to which the problems described are specific to modernity; it raises a far more troubling set of questions about the ability to bridge the divide between the two forms of inquiry, and about the purpose of a book like Pfau’s. If Minding the Modern is not only speaking to those who already share its framework, then its aim must be to persuade those who hold reductionist views to give them up in favor of the dialectical and self-clarifying tradition (which, as Pfau shows, is neither monolithic nor dogmatic). But surely the longstanding and ongoing opposition between these two modes of inquiry, if it is not simply an aberration of modernity, gives us little reason for optimism. If anything, it prompts us to reflect further on the unbridgeability of the divide and the reasons for it. What if these two traditions are radically incommensurable? What if they proceed from radically divergent starting points, mutually unintelligible to each other? What would it take to set them in conversation with one another, or to move someone from one to the other? Minding the Modern explains lucidly and compellingly how reductionist accounts close themselves off from a rich tradition of inquiry about the moral life. But it also enables us to glimpse, in passing, why the tradition of dialectical inquiry as Pfau reconstructs it might be so difficult to enter into for someone who stands outside of it. There is a nonnegotiable starting point whose acceptance is imperative to everything that follows. Glossing Newman’s notion of “real assent,” Pfau writes that “human freedom cannot be reduced to a function of subjective (and likely ephemeral) preference for this or that value or meaning. Rather, it presupposes an intuitive and unconditional commitment to suprapersonal ends to be sifted and internalized with increasing clarity by our discursive understanding and deliberative judgment” (404). Or, in the case of Aquinas: “that ontological framework must be accepted by all those who wish to engage in a rational and sustained exchange about pretty much anything at all. Even heretics and pagans can be engaged, within limits, provided they accept the premise of some non-contingent relation between the human and the divine” (133). The price of entry is high indeed. This is not to say that it is arbitrary or dogmatically demanded. Pfau believes that the prior assent or commitment to a transcendent normative order is apparent all around us, in the sheer givenness of being and the saturated significance of phenomena that radiate meaning (28–29, 135–36, 149, 405, 476, 612–13), and indeed, his new work on the image will take this up even more emphatically. But what if I just don’t see it, as much as I might want to? What if I view the natural world as well accounted for by naturalist and reductionist accounts, and understand the world of ends, meanings, values as necessary but imposed by human fiat and fictioning? How does one even begin to have a conversation with someone for whom the experience of the saturated phenomenon is not available? Does this not account for the persistent and unbridgeable divergence between naturalist and non-naturalist accounts? And if one could indeed begin that conversation, would it not suggest that prior commitment and assent were not necessary for “rational and sustained exchange”? Would it be sufficient to understand Pfau’s demand for “real assent” in a Kantian way, as the assumptions and preconditions necessary for us to be moral agents, or is the claim stronger than that, as I suspect it is? And perhaps most importantly, is it not possible (and indeed even necessary) to imagine reconstructing, as an alternative to naturalist and reductionist accounts, a notion of the human moral life as necessarily ends-oriented, without assenting to the verticality essential to Pfau’s account, or only a “weak” version of it, a “finite transcendence” (as I would like to wager)? Might this not be the only way to bridge between the otherwise incommensurable traditions whose perpetual antagonism Pfau describes so well?

A second question concerns one of the fundamental operations of the text: the operation that Pfau, following Coleridge, calls “desynonimization” (466). In order to distinguish certain privileged concepts from their reductionist and voluntarist counterparts, Pfau insists that it is necessary to desynonimize terms which often mimic or even closely resemble one another. Thus, acting “in order to” achieve something must be strongly distinguished from acting “for the sake of” something, goods of “efficiency” from those of “excellence” (92, 94). But is this distinction tenable? When I go to the store to buy food (presumably one of the goods of efficiency), could it not be said that I am acting in order to satisfy my hunger or that I am acting for the sake of satisfying my hunger? And if we think of happiness as eudaimonia, could it not be said that I am acting in order to secure my happiness, just as I am acting for the sake of securing my happiness? Like Pfau, I believe it is important to distinguish strongly between mere instrumentality and a necessary orientation towards ends, but the grounds for the distinction appear to lie in good judgment and our orientation toward the fictioned ends rather than any difference in kind between the ends in question.1

Similarly, Pfau believes that there is a form of reflective awareness of, attention to and dialogical engagement with our interior states that is essential for cogent and meaningful action (80, 224), yet there is also a form of interiority that is utterly paralyzing and prevaricating, disabling our capacity for judgment (100, 247). But how are these forms of interiority to be kept rigorously separate? How is it that the moderns appear at times to have dispensed with the reflexivity and awareness essential to the will, and yet at others, they appear too reflective and deliberative? How is it that Aristotle’s “deliberate choosing” can play such an important role in the dialectical tradition (80), whereas the “deliberative individual” exemplifies the atomized and alienated subjects of modernity (100)? What makes for the difference between enabling and paralyzing deliberation, or is deliberation insufficient to distinguish between the two competing modes of inquiry? There are many other examples of such concepts that shadow each other in the two traditions. I will simply point to a few others, since it is impossible to discuss them all in detail here. How is the socialization involved in the Aristotelian epagōgē different from the problematic socialization at work in eighteenth-century models of reason (374, 409, 500)? Can habit and habituation be as sharply desynonymized from behavior, conventions, manners and customs as Pfau would like (269, 610), or are they not all forms of socialization designed to minimize the labor of reflection and deliberation? Indeed, isn’t the line between the traditional and the customary nearly impossible to specify, even though tradition functions as a privileged term for Pfau and custom as its shadowy modern Doppelgänger? Is “certainty” all that different from “certitude” (614)?

A last example of the difficulties of desynonimization: the notion of an autonomous individual deciding on his or her commitments is exposed as fraught in a number of ways, and ultimately bound up with the irrationalist voluntarism that is modernity’s legacy. But I wonder whether the burden of autonomous judgment can ever be bypassed, even in the accounts that are most worried about the problematic legacy of autonomy. So, for example, describing Newman’s reaction to Coleridge’s copious moral reflections, Pfau writes: “[Newman] also acknowledges that the recovery of any such tradition as a framework enabling the orientation of rational human beings in a social and hence moral space will only succeed if such a frame becomes the object of ‘real assent.’ We cannot be argued into accepting a position such as the one Coleridge has so elaborately retrieved from Trinitarian theology and (neo-)Platonism. Rather, ‘we must secure that worth for our own use by the personal action of our own minds’” (616). To my mind, it is very difficult if not impossible to separate this injunction from the Enlightenment dicta of Locke or Kant that we must, in the last instance, judge for ourselves, and this as I understand it is the very essence of what it means to be autonomous. How, then, is one kind of autonomy to be desynonimized from the other? Does “rational self-possession” (188), here associated with the traditional view, not resemble too closely certain Enlightenment notions of autonomy?

If we step back from these particular examples for a moment, I want to emphasize that my point here is not the banal one that any act of desynonimizing such closely related terms is always bound to fail. On the contrary, I believe like Pfau that this work of desynonimization is absolutely crucial if we are to secure for ourselves a set of concepts in the humanities that are not reducible to or translatable into forms of naturalistic and scientistic thinking. But it seems to me that, in order to secure this conceptual space as radically distinct, it will be necessary to give a rigorously formal account of the precise way in which these concepts differ, and how they speak about different and indeed incommensurable realms of human experience. Now, Minding the Modern resists the imperative to offer such a formal account, and it does so, I think, on methodological grounds having to do with the historical emergence of concepts that I outlined above. I am torn here, because I understand and endorse, up to a point, the value of the historical method that Pfau proposes. However, it seems to me that one can still, at the end of a process of historical reflection of the kind Minding the Modern engages in, arrive at a formal set of distinctions that would rigorously separate the two major kinds of theoretical account in the book. Otherwise, they risk blurring into each other, as the above examples of precarious desynonymization suggest. I wonder, then, whether a formalization of the two models might not help shore up the practice of desynonimization which, at least at moments such as the ones I have identified, seems a little too unstable. What might be the advantages and dangers of such a formalization? Would Pfau’s method permit it? Indeed, does his argument not require it?

I would like to conclude this review with a final knot of questions, that will bring into focus how tricky and consequential the operation of desynonymization is, at the precise point where the stakes of the project are highest. According to Pfau, one of the major casualties of the conceptual transformation wrought by voluntarism is the notion of action: “First, there is the increasingly embattled, seemingly untenable status of action, practical reason, and a coherent model of human agency as both self-aware and responsible” (3). I am in complete agreement with him on this point. But the way in which Pfau maps the coordinates of this transformation is at times counterintuitive, and it blunts the political force of the vision he outlines in Minding the Modern (perhaps deliberately so). The first sign that “action” is being understood in a surprising way that would challenge its political valence comes early, when Pfau accuses the moderns not of inaction or passivity, but precisely of a certain activism: “To consider the changing understanding of concepts in the modern era . . . also means to apprehend the costs of several other, closely related shifts: viz., from a contemplative to an active stance; and from a mode of knowing that takes itself to be participating in reason to one that takes itself to be producing rational order by applying concepts to what is now posited as a universe replete with puzzling and ostensibly isolated objects and phenomena” (18). Since the recuperation of a concept of action is part of the project, one might be tempted to dismiss this statement as an anomaly or a contradiction, but it is consistent with the overall thrust of his argument. The “activism” of the moderns follows from their notion of the will as unrestrained and self-originating (493), one of the legacies of voluntarism. Thus, an accusation Pfau frequently levels against modern theorists is that they are utopian (256, 268, 378, 402, 404).2 In order to check the utopian excesses of modernity and to restore a realm of action that is ordered by reason rather than chaotically produced by arbitrary acts of self-creation, it is necessary to acknowledge one’s participation in a dialectically self-modifying tradition. Pfau speaks of “the realm of action that proceeds on the strength of habits, judgments, and traditions whose meaning is inseparable from our acknowledgment of their authority and their dialectically reasoned transmission to the future” (3). The consequences of this view for Pfau’s own conception of action are profound. In the act of desynonymizing action from its modern counterpart, action comes to look nothing like what we would call action: “Hence, actus for Aquinas ‘is a single complex operation involving both will and intellect,’ less an instant discharge of causal power than a hermeneutic process whereby human beings achieve a coherent perspective on and commitment to the specific goods in which they take themselves to participate. . . . action in Aquinas unfolds as a complex and sustained interpretive and evaluative process” (139). This radical reinterpretation of action is in itself not a problem; indeed, it is a hallmark of the boldest conceptual work. More worryingly, however, Pfau’s reconceptualization tends to narrow the field of action to the individual and its own work of personal transformation, while the world of politics is at best indifferent and at worst a Hobbesian play of power, self-interest and manipulation, tenuously held together by fear and the threat of violence: “action is not merely oriented toward the manipulation of some specific object or to the attainment of some contingent objective. Rather, by its very nature, action transforms the agent’s very sense of ‘being-in-the-world.’ . . . Unlike mechanical causation, then, action discloses ‘the unique and distinct identity of the agent’” (396; see also, 155). It is almost as though we have come full circle, to a modern focus on individuality, though the features of this individual have been substantially rewritten, so that it has been re-embedded in a tradition that supplies the place of the community lost under the conditions of modernity.

Of course, that cannot be the whole story, and aspects of Pfau’s account confirm for us the necessarily utopian character of all action worthy of the name. Explaining what happens when thinking becomes “strictly reactive” in Schopenhauer, Pfau writes that “on that premise, thinking lacks any generative, imaginative, or counterfactual dimension” (475–76). At the core of Minding the Modern, then, is a desire to restore a form of thinking that is both deliberative and creative as it ranges through the space of alternative possibilities. But this, as I understand it, is precisely the essence of utopian reasoning, as it manifests itself in the political writings of Plato, Aristotle, More and many others. It is not simply that such reasoning allows us to see and magine alternatives; rather, the space of normativity is constituted each time through acts of utopian fictioning. Fictions both produce the ideals which afford some transcendence from the world as it is given, and they produce (when they work well) the attachments to those ideals that engender the desire to will them into reality. On this point, we can recognize a deep tension in Pfau’s thinking between the deliberative, self-aware, counterfactual and responsible dimension of reason on the one hand, and the need for an absolute prior assent or commitment to an already existent normative order that remains nonnegotiable at some level. We have already seen instances of both these imperatives, but a few more examples will sharpen the sense of opposing tendencies. Describing how the recognition of personhood in Coleridge implies a commitment to a set of norms, Pfau writes: “Hence to say that recognition implies the practical acknowledgment of the other as being of equal dignity as the ‘I’ means not so much to have advanced a neutral and formally contestable claim but to have grasped how the empirical, inter-subjective realm is saturated with normative values or ideas. Inasmuch as questions of community and relationality are matters of truth, not correctness, normativity signifies not in the manner of a ‘thou shalt’ but, instead, points to the nature of the real itself, and thus proves immune to some counterfactual scenario” (591–92). Yet at other times, it is precisely the acceptance of givenness that undermines the counterfactual realm in which action operates: “Fearful of the causal indeterminacy and unpredictability of action, and wary of committing to the good to be realized through action, the modern individual is prone to accept the world as something ‘objective,’ determinate, and non-negotiable” (396). Refusing to commit to the utopian good to be realized through action, the modern individual here is quintessentially anti-utopian rather than utopian. At issue in my observation is not something so simple as a contradiction, between whether the modern individual is utopian or anti-utopian (it could be both), or between counterfactual reasoning and the need for prior assent to an already existent order (since some starting point, however provisional, will always be necessary for counterfactual reason). The issue concerns the status of the “good to be realized through action,” and this is precisely where the final knot of questions emerges. To what extent can this good be renegotiated (utopian), or is it in the final reckoning sheltered by the authority of tradition? To what extent is this good a political achievement (utopian) or is it confined to the individual, as the critique of the causal understanding of action suggests? (I call this a “knot” because the questions are interrelated in messy ways around the utopian.) On both these questions, Pfau’s views are complex and need to be worked through more carefully than can be done in the space of a review, so I will only provide some hints here. Regarding the first question, Pfau’s notion of a dialectically self-modifying and self-clarifying tradition suggests that there is already built into a healthy living tradition a process of self-correction and renegotiation. At the same time, we have seen him speak of “traditions whose meaning is inseparable from our acknowledgment of their authority.” But authority is not an arbitrary imposition of power. In a symposium on Minding the Modern at Northwestern University, Pfau explained in response to my preliminary remarks that “as Gadamer has pointed out, authority (unlike Hobbesian ‘power’) can never be ‘seized’ but must always be ‘earned’ (muß erworben werden).” Now I would say that authority of this kind cannot be earned and acquired once and for all (indeed, under the conditions of modernity, whatever authority had been earned has been almost terminally lost); it must be earned over and over again, through the work of reasoning, as Pfau’s book itself testifies. And it will always be a judgment we make, an autonomous judgment, as to whether that authority has been earned or not. But this means that even tradition cannot substitute for the work of autonomous judgment in the last instance. At least two things follow from this observation. In the dialectic of assent and counterfactual deliberative reasoning, the latter always has priority over the former. And this means that in any genuine effort to engage dialectically with a tradition, we must always open ourselves up to the possibility of a non-dialectical rejection of tradition. There will be times, indeed possibly many times, when tradition will also have led us astray, and we judge that it is better to seek, through the work of a generative, imaginative and counterfactual reason, for a new set of traditions more appropriate to our situation.

Indeed, it is precisely here that the utopian and political dimension of Pfau’s vision reenters the picture, as a response to the second question I posed. After all, the very act of wanting a reengagement with tradition, in a modern world that is so misaligned with this desire, is a utopian demand. It cannot be satisfied by individual acts of engagement with tradition, though these are certainly a necessary precondition. If the social world and political institutions we inhabit are so organized as to produce, foster and perpetuate our disembedding from communities and the traditions that sustain them, then only a reorganization of that world to embody a vision of the good can fully respond to the social and conceptual problems of modernity Pfau diagnoses. This claim is not foreign to Pfau’s vision, but implicit in some of the claims he makes. Paraphrasing Milbank, Pfau argues that rights theory has “lost sight of how the legitimacy of . . . political power necessarily presupposes a notion of ‘right order’” (384). We will always have to “arrive at a reasoned judgment as to whether we construe communal flourishing to depend on (enforced) respect for the inherent rights of individuals, or whether our conception of what those rights are is itself derived from a transcendently sanctioned, normative conception of a just (communal) order” (385). It is precisely the specification of that just order in concrete detail, and its instantiation through political action, that will have to be the work of utopian politics. Since the tradition to which Pfau recurs is ultimately an Aristotelian one, it should not be surprising that there is an Aristotelian insight lurking here. Only certain polities are suited to and organized with a view to the flourishing life. The best kind of city will be the one which most enables and ensures this flourishing. Ethics and politics are not separate or antithetical enterprises for Aristotle, but complementary and conjoined. Integral to the possibility of a flourishing ethical life is a utopian politics that will imagine the customs, traditions and institutions capable of serving as the matrix for such a life.

  1. For a fuller discussion, see Vivasvan Soni, “Can Aesthetics Overcome Instrumental Reason?,” in Philosophical Turns: Eighteenth-Century Thought, Aesthetics, and Literature, edited by Alison Conway and Mary Helen McMurran (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, under review).

  2. See also, Thomas Pfau, “Beyond Liberal Utopia: Freedom as the Problem of Modernity,” European Romantic Review 19.2 (2008) 83–103.

  • Thomas Pfau

    Thomas Pfau


    Who Is In, and Who Is Out? On the Limits of Dialectical Reasoning

    I am deeply grateful to Viv Soni for his exceptionally rich and probing comments on my book. When it comes to capturing the intent of Minding the Modern and, also, when raising questions and intimating a different perspective, Soni’s comments are the very model of what focused and open-minded intellectual exchange ought to be, an ideal to which the academy often fails to live up. Given the length and depth of his response, I will skip over his opening, succinct and perceptive characterization of my book’s architecture and objectives and, instead, address at least some of his queries.

    One such question has to do with whether Minding the Modern amounts to a narrative of decline, perhaps initiated by Ockham’s voluntarist theo-logic and subsequently transposed by Hobbes into a comprehensive, secular concept of sovereign power. Recognizing that my book “narrates the movement of intellectual history so dialectically,” Soni thus wonders whether the same materials might not have yielded “a rather different story . . . about the perennial opposition of two explanatory accounts of human persons and the world, one transcendent and normative, the other immanent and reductionist.” Indeed, that is very much the kind of narrative I take myself to be telling, that is “a series of focused and often intensely adversarial exchanges” (MTM 15) issuing from two, ultimately incommensurable sets of axioms and commitments. Yet that dialectical narrative, even as it has always been playing itself out in some form, cannot be graphed evenly. Rather, it involves occasional spikes of intensity, moments when the contest of frameworks is more sharply etched and the incommensurability of the respective assumptions emerges more starkly into view.

    As my juxtaposition of Plato and the Sophists, Augustine and the Pelagians, and similar configurations (also noted by Soni) suggests, Minding the Modern does not posit Ockham, Hobbes, or anyone else as positively inaugurating naturalist or reductionist accounts of human agency. There is no such beginning. Yet inasmuch as Hobbes switches from a dialectical engagement of his precursors to their unilateral dismissal—justified by an epistemology largely of his own devising—he appears to initiate a new model of inquiry, defined above all by the striking assertiveness and impatience with which modern habits of argumentation are presented as the only viable paradigm. Soni is entirely right, then, to conclude that following the arrival of Hobbes’ aggressive naturalist epistemology and its reductionist application to questions of the human, it is “difficult to speak of any process of dialectical clarification and progress in these accounts.” Rather we confront “a serial reinvention of the same problems, paradoxes, and impoverishments.” Precisely! Indeed, the story unfolded by Minding the Modern also tells of the gradual elision of dialectical and hermeneutic (as opposed to determinative) modes of inquiry precipitated by reductionist naturalisms or hyper-rationalisms of the sort advanced by Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza, or Hume, to name but a few.

    Inasmuch as “the tradition of reductionist and naturalist accounts of the human person has always been available,” then an answer to Soni’s eminently sensible question (“what constitutes the distinctiveness of the modern rupture?”) has to begin here: with this elision, starting in the seventeenth century, of dialectical reasoning itself. The “rupture” in question is brought about by peremptory claims to exclusivity and absolute authority on the part of naturalistic, mono-causal, and verificationist epistemologies and their underlying assumptions about personhood. The progenitors of these frameworks stipulate as axiomatic what, notably, cannot be proven: (1) that only such phenomena are to be credited with reality as do fully accommodate themselves to the jurisdiction of scientific, verifiable and quantifiable methods; (2) that all interpretive, teleological (and value-based) inquiry stands to be sublated into fact-based, causally determinative modes of cognition; (3) and that, consequently, all received, “premodern” forms of inquiry prove irrelevant to, indeed positively obstruct, the progress of modern, naturalistic or skeptical epistemologies prepared to invest phenomena with reality and significance only on terms of our own (autonomous) devising. Hegel surely was right to flag the peculiar blindness of modernity’s inherently skeptical stance vis-à-vis the givenness of the world and received traditions of inquiry, a skepticism peremptorily directed at everything except the delusive, un-reflected confidence with which it is asserted and implemented by the modern subject.

    Let me now address another, related question also raised by Soni, namely, “why the tradition of dialectical inquiry as [I] reconstruct it might be so difficult to enter into for someone who stands outside of it.” How, he asks, “does one even begin to have a conversation with someone for him the experience of the saturated phenomenon is not available?” Two thoughts suggest themselves here by way of an (at least partial) answer. First, we should bear in mind that the difficulty of entering into tradition constitutes integral feature of it. As Gadamer had put it, as an ontological condition of all understanding, the hermeneutic circle can neither be sidestepped nor overcome by some method; instead, by cultivating the art of phronesis over the durée of an entire life, all rational agents learn (with varying degrees of success) how best to step into that circle. Given the depth and complexity of intellectual genealogies, participating in them as a rational agent, informed yet humble, will always prove difficult. Those who fancy (and often pride) themselves to be standing “outside of [tradition]” strike me as self-deceived. The name for that outside is not “autonomy” but “ignorance.”

    That said, Soni is right to press another, closely related question, namely, how one might enter into rational conversation with someone entirely oblivious of, or doggedly unresponsive to, phenomena heteronomously received rather than autonomously made. Referencing my discussion of Aquinas’ strictures on the conversation with heretics (a possibility as long they “accept the premise of some non-contingent relation between the human and the divine” [MTM 133]), Soni notes that “the price of entry is high indeed” though not, he admits, “arbitrary or dogmatically demanded.” A first response here probably ought to be that whether the price is high or low depends largely on the alternative. Thus before repudiating all transcendent sources of normativity as asking simply too much, one should ask whether the alternative vision is less costly. What is the price paid for confining the work of reason to a purely anthropomorphic level, for acknowledging meanings, values, and ends only of our own contingent devising, and of disengaging as a matter of principle any notion of a viable future of our own making from meanings, norms, and goods received qua tradition.

    A different response to Soni’s question might begin with a simple acknowledgment that there simply is no ontological guarantee to the effect that all human beings can be drawn into rational and purposive exchange. There are now and always have been individuals and entire communities categorically unwilling to be drawn into rational argument because their all-consuming telos is one of power, not knowledge, radical self-sufficiency rather than community, pride and (ultimately) hate rather than charity. Indeed, the failure (or refusal?) of some individuals to respond to or even acknowledge the reality of phenomena that fall outside of any known matrix of desire, interest, and utility—that is, the Platonic triad of the beautiful, the good, and the true—typically coincides with their inability to experience love or achieve interpersonal community. One of Kant’s brilliant (and notably Platonic) insights was to point to how “community” and “communicability” pivot on judgments of the beautiful, itself a symbol (or hypotyposis) of the morally good. There will always be—and we may have to reconcile ourselves to there being—some individuals or entire groups (say, hard-core Libertarians) incapable of a disinterested perspective on anything and, hence, unable to imagine and jointly reason about ends or goods other than private interests—simply because they cannot grasp the underlying distinction.

    Well versed in Platonic thought, Kant thus has good reason to view the Enlightenment as an ongoing moral aspiration with no guarantees of universal fulfillment. Likewise, Soni is entirely right to reference Kant as the touchstone for gauging my book’s underlying “assumptions and preconditions [as to what is] necessary for us to be rational agents.” Yet on this very point, Kant’s oeuvre, too, has received a wide array of divergent appraisals; Coleridge’s (unabashedly Platonizing) reading of Kant is a world apart from Herman Cohen’s development of Kantian epistemology, or from Arendt’s or Habermas’ appraisal of Kant’s political and moral philosophy, and so forth, with different schools of interpretation predictably drawing on different parts of the philosopher’s oeuvre. Soni correctly surmises that my view of what is presupposed for rational agency and community is more robust than what most readers seem to find in Kant; yet how and why that is so would require a fuller account, especially of Kant’s late Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793) than can be offered here. 1

    I am also grateful to Soni for drawing attention to the Coleridgean idea of “desynonymization,” a parsing of concepts also indispensable to the kind of hermeneutic work pursued throughout Minding the Modern. Yet where Soni wonders whether distinction (originally proposed by MacIntyre) between “goods of efficiency” and those of “excellence” is really tenable, I should like to hold the line. Conjuring the example of someone going to the store, hungry and in a quest for food, Soni suggests that there is little point in distinguishing between that action’s instrumental and teleological dimension (i.e., buying food in order to or for the sake of satisfying my hunger). As it happens, Minding the Modern actually alights on the motif of hunger precisely so as to draw and maintain the distinction in question (cf. 587). To be sure, in the case of hunger, any remedial action is naturally informed by an instrumental and causally efficient dimension. Yet it does not follow, and indeed is rarely the case, that the instrumental aspect is the only one operative here. Under ordinary conditions, I may still choose (perhaps unwisely) how to satisfy my hunger, how much to spend on food (factoring other financial commitments); or whether to share some of my excessive purchase of food with the homeless person sitting outside the store; etc.

    As with all instances of choice, which of course may well turn out to be a “bad” one, my action is circumscribed by a “tacit dimension” or “background awareness” (Polanyi) of ends and responsibilities that have long shaped my personal narrative: say, conversations with a physician about my less-than-optimal cholesterol levels, considerations of an extended family that depends on me, memories of relatives who died prematurely from heart-attack or are suffering from diabetes, etc. Hence, even where something as elemental and somatic as hunger is at issue, we rarely leave the domain of choice altogether; rather, we find our action to be intelligible—and hence bona fide an “action” rather than a sheer reflex—precisely because it is informed by more than immediate desire or need. In this context, then, I admit being somewhat doubtful of Soni’s characterization of these more oblique ends as “fictioned,” a neologism that seems to invest such ends with a strictly adventitious, artificial, or hypothetical quality. Yet to the extent that a telos informs our practices, habits, and choices, it is consummately real since in its absence our choices, acts and, ultimately, we ourselves as rational agents would become unintelligible. The far greater and more pernicious fiction, I would argue, consists in taking oneself to have at all times a conscious and exhaustive grasp of one’s reasons by assimilating them to supposedly context- and value-free, quasi-somatic desires or needs—this being the strict naturalist’s preferred fiction, which in time tends to collapse the sphere of reasons into that of interests.

    Still, Soni is right to question the limits of desynonymizing concepts that, even under close scrutiny, often seem hard to disentangle. Thus he asks just how it is that I should invest Aristotle’s prohairesis and Aquinas’ election with such importance while waxing quite critical about the “deliberative individual” of the bourgeois novel: “What makes for the difference between enabling and paralyzing deliberation?” And “how are these forms of interiority to be kept rigorously separate?” As regards the latter question, I readily concede that there is no hard-and-fast theoretical answer, just as there doesn’t exist a value- and context-neutral method that would allow for such parsing. Learning to discern the right moment for introspection and to judge when its pursuit becomes a paralyzing fixation is an art only acquired, if at all, over the course of a life. Yet precisely because it cannot be methodologically secured, such wisdom seems an alien and pointless ideal within a culture committed to a strictly instrumental and efficient conception of rationality. It is mainly to illustrate that shift that Minding the Modern repeatedly draws the distinction, both on heuristic and historical grounds, between Aristotelian, teleological judgment and a model of introspection prompted by personal interests and desires, disembedded from particular practices and social goods intrinsic to them, and oblivious of the flourishing of other persons and communities present or future. Where deliberation unfolds independent of any supra-personal, teleological framework, it becomes increasingly opaque—something akin to Hegel’s account of an utterly solipsistic “meaning” (das Meinen) that lodges a stammering claim to reality but can, literally, not make that claim intelligible to others. Purely intra-subjective deliberation is, ultimately, not deliberation at all but, on the contrary, reveals a badly stunted model of sociality comprising little more than an agglomeration of unstable and competing subjective claim-rights and preferences.

Cyril O'Regan


Critical Excavations of Genealogy

PFAU’S BOOK IS ROOMY enough and the discussions of individual thinkers interesting and expansive enough that one can easily forget that this large and marvelously readable book is obviously an exercise in genealogy. It takes a modicum of distance to remind oneself that Pfau is producing something like a genealogy of modernity, while also suggesting the outlines of a cure. I suppose, in a sense, it would be sufficient to reproduce the skeleton of Pfau’s argument by putting in parentheses the thick descriptions of thinkers along the way. What I propose to do, however, while related, is somewhat different and supposes such an outline. Rather I aim to deal with the meta-issue of precisely where in the landscape of genealogies does Minding the Modern belong? I start at a bit of a distance by making two general observations about Pfau’s text. First, the content and style of genealogical discourse displayed in Minding the Modern is that of a compositional arrangement which performs something like a double orchestration, first of the voices of the thinkers who are the explicit object of analysis in the chapters (and the other voices that speak more episodically), and second the genealogical voices that throughout haunt the text. Second, there is the issue of the title. The word “minding” in the title of the book has as its most obvious sense paying attention to or caring about the modern and especially what it makes possible and forecloses. A second, related sense has to do with taking care of the modern, for the modern needs taking care of, maybe needs help, perhaps on an analogy to medical help. Perhaps modernity is a kind of “hospital” about which Goethe complains. A third sense, perhaps, is minding as in being aware of and perhaps being wary of modernity’s aggressive willfulness, calculative, organizational and methodological propensity to a wisdom possible only in a self grounded in ethos, open to the formation, and the redemption of disaggregating temporality. Maybe Hӧlderlin and the best of Heidegger (Andenken), as well as Coleridge, who is privileged, are sounding through. Since a genealogy of modernity tells a story of its waywardness, I wish to attend to subtle inflections in Pfau’s text that suggest conversation with other genealogists. Since a genealogy of modernity routinely suggests something like a therapeutic, I will attend to Pfau’s selection of Coleridge as a site of possible repair. I begin, as a first point, with Pfau’s latent and critical conversation with other genealogists of modernity, what I call here the “genealogical filters” of Minding the Modern.

Genealogical Filters

Minding the Modern is a very learned book and while some thinkers are “minded,” many others with German and English and occasionally even French names come and go. But there is a special group of thinkers, that is, current genealogists who are not so much interlocutors, even interlocutors with genealogical interests such as Nietzsche and Heidegger, as filters for Pfau’s complex and—to use a Coleridgean locution—highly “reticulated” narrative of loss and recovery. These include Hans Blumenberg, Louis Dupré, Charles Taylor, and Alasdair MacIntyre. Each of these genealogists make important contributions to Pfau’s story. From Blumenberg Pfau imbibes the sense of the rupture with the past indicated/constituted by modern discourses and practices and the way in which new discourses and practices “reoccupy” the vacancy left by the exhausted or defeated discourses and practices. But Pfau seems to draw more clearly the corollary that if new discourses and practices emerge that recall the old, one is necessarily dealing with a non-identical repetition. Presumably Coleridge’s recovery of the integral of will and reason in the participatory matrix in which the Trinity is horizon and actor is the singularly most crucial non-identical repetition. From Dupré, Pfau can find either inspiration or confirmation concerning the break-up in the late medieval period of the erstwhile integral view of self as will and reason. Whether Nominalism represents a beginning of the career of will as a free radical or something more like a pre-beginning may be open to question. In any event, Nominalism represents a major crack in the premodern world of assumption. The crack, which establishes voluntarism, is theologically mediated in that the primacy of will on the anthropological level re-presents at once the separation of will and reason at the level of the divine and the newfound primacy of the former. Pfau also shows himself sympathetic in a general way to other features of Dupré’s genealogical program, specifically his concern that the destabilization of the matrix of participation, which supported an integral anthropology, changes not only the epistemological rules but our social and political understanding. Pfau shares Dupré’s broad sympathies for the Romantics and the German Idealists who repair some features of modernity while unsuccessfully addressing others. Finally, and most importantly, the model of genealogy is strikingly similar to that of Dupré’s in that it tries to move between history of ideas and philosophy in the proper sense, in that it tells a story of a fundamental shift in perspective, underscores the cost, yet also tries to point to features in the modernity which are covered over in a modern picture of the self that is only apparently plural. In a sense Pfau and Dupré assume that the modern has in some real sense not only displaced and replaced, but written or painted over the premodern. The figure of the genealogist here is that of palimpsest.

Taylor’s Sources of the Self as much as Secularism might be thought to make three contributions to Minding the Modern: first, offering complex and nuancedN accounts of Enlightenment authors thereby forestalling peremptory severe judgments on the Enlightenment and especially on Romanticism that flows from it, and second by chastening our expectations regarding a pure recovery of an original. There is no way back to a pristinely pure premodernity. And lastly, Pfau’s book is inspired by After Virtue and Alasdair MacIntyre’s other texts for a workable description of the initial premodern understanding of the self and the conceptual matrix and practices that sustain it and that it also sustains, and also a workable description of the new picture of the world with its corresponding practices and forms of life. For both Pfau and McIntryre the integrated self is governed more by ethos than rule, and responsibility arises from a self temporally and attitudinally coherent oriented towards goods that transcend immediate gratification and immanent satisfaction.

The above outline could mislead if it suggests that all four genealogists which haunt Pfau’s discourse haunt it equally. They are made up of greater and lesser proximities, with Dupré and MacIntyre having the greater influence, and with Dupré likely having the most, since he self-consciously attempts as Pfau does to integrate in critical fashion the other three. I suppose the issue of proximity gets to the issue of placing Pfau’s genealogical account in a topology of such accounts. Importantly, Pfau’s text repeats none of these figures exactly. It is interesting to spot the differences. For example, despite his apparent sanction of Blumenberg’s “reoccupation,” Pfau affirms that forms of thought, whether relatively mainline traditional (Platonism; Boethius and Richard of Saint Victor’s view of person) or marginal (Gnosticism and Marcionism), can be repeated in discourses that react to the Enlightenment. This, however, seems to suppose something like substantive repetition, even if the repetition is non-identical. Pfau here seems to position himself in a way similar to Dupré, who grants that in a fundamental sense modernity represents a rupture, only to mitigate its absoluteness by thinking that one can to a limited extent continue to speak of secularization and the perseveration of content identities in discourse across time. This is indicated most generally in Dupré’s attempt to unite Blumenberg with Gadamer who presents a restricted version of substantive discursive and conceptual unity across time. Ultimately, Pfau’s genealogical model, as is true of Dupré also, is hermeneutical.

Besides the general difference between what Pfau characterizes as the “high altitude” complexion of all of the genealogical filters he employs, the following differences between Pfau and MacIntyre are especially illustrative. (i) Even as he focuses on a single aspect of premodern conceptuality, that is, the integration of will and reason in the depiction of the self, compared with MacIntyre Pfau offers a more variegated and democratic view of the self in which different premodern views and/or emphases are relatively—although not absolutely—irreducible. If, after MacIntyre, Pfau might be thought to privilege Aquinas when it comes to the vision of integration of will and reason in the self, he does not do so to such an extent that other classical views of the self (Stoicism) or other Christian views for that matter (Augustine) are subjected to something like an Aufhebung. (ii) In addition, Pfau has much greater sympathies for the Platonic tradition than is evident in MacIntryre’s work and displays much more interest in the premodern matrix of participation. This is not to say that Aristotle is not important for Pfau—he is. But he does not think that it is a zero-sum game in premodernity between Aristotle and Plato—the same is true of Aquinas. This has real consequence with regard both to the pertinence and value of retrievals in the Romantic and Idealist period of Platonism and Neoplatonism, whose retrieval Pfau is anxious to bring to our attention. (iii) Pfau is more focused than MacIntyre on naming the culprits for the prizing apart of intellect and will, and points in general to the Franciscan School and calls out Ockham in particular. (iv) Pfau seems more confident than MacIntyre that we have an answer to the aporia of modernity. Relatedly, Pfau is more determinate in pointing to those discourses which we might call discourses of redress. Pfau certainly does not deny that Newman might contribute to an answer regarding the integration of will and reason—on the basis of MacIntyre’s work as a whole MacIntyre has to capacity to say this although he doesn’t say it in After Virtue. Notably, however, Pfau privileges S. T. Coleridge as the intellectual figure who most adequately overcomes the manifold disaggregations of modernity (mind and nature, self and God) and most adequately repeats the premodern synthesis of will and reason in the responsible agential self. (v) Finally, in his treatment of discourses of redress Pfau proves himself to be unadulterately theological in a way that MacIntyre almost never is. Here we are talking of theological in the strict sense and not simply about a general theistic assumption. Pfau wishes to support Coleridge at his most metaphysical—which is also his most theological—namely, that it is the vision of the Trinity which makes sense of the notion of person which, in turn, supposes relation as a condition of personal integrity. Coleridge’s Trinitarian and anthropological discourses, as well as their link, represents a non-identical repetition of what is best in premodern Christian thought. With this we segue to my second substantive point.

Coleridge as Privileged

Pfau advances a startling thesis: our true repentance with regard to the break and our hope in recovery and/or reconstruction of the premodern view of the self as an integrated and responsible agent whose will is connected with rational aims is vested in S. T. Coleridge. The unavoidable question is why Coleridge?—where an acceptable answer cannot be that the author of this book is in an expert on Coleridge and has significant expertise in Romanticism more generally. One possible response to what comes off as an embarrassing counterintuitive claim is to attenuate it and simply insist that Coleridge represents a single, if important, point of overcoming the dispensation of separation of will and reason and the demise of virtue. The ameliorative strategy, however, is hardly viable, given the number of chapters devoted to Coleridge. Pfau is claiming in fact that Coleridge is nothing less than exemplary. Now, it is true that the reasons for the singularity of Coleridge are not explicitly produced. Neither are they buried. I think a very modest amount of interpretation excavates the following six. (i) One finds in Coleridge a rich anthropology that attacks the modern separation of will and reason and the related reduction of the former to desire, and which reconstructs the premodern view of an embodied agential self oriented towards good, while variously emphasizing its quite different Platonic, Stoic, Aristotelian, Augustinian, and Thomistic inflections. Coleridge’s recovery of Platonic and Neoplatonic forms of thought is especially important, and he demonstrates the continual vitality and Platonic and Neoplatonic discourses, both ancient and modern. Platonism is the lingua franca of English Romantic protest against methodologism and materialism. (ii) Coleridge makes sense of this anthropology by framing it within a larger horizon in which not only is the relation of individual selves to community and history worked out, but also the relation of the human world to the natural world and both to an ultimate horizon of divine agency and presumptive presence in the world. (iii) Coleridge believes that a certain form of knowledge—reason rather than understanding—enables us to have contact with God as well as responsibly articulate the Trinitarian and thus relational personhood of the Christian God who serves as a model for what is truly human. (iv) Coleridge is able partially to overcome in his own life and in his thought features of Romantic and Idealist thought that represent further alienations from the premodern view of the self or counterfeits of it. Yet he also displays the capacity to make use of what in these discourses represents an overcoming of the contracted and deformed views on the self that are the modern defaults. (v) Obviously, for the sake of plausibility, the singularity of Coleridge is qualified in a number of ways: We are talking textually about the Coleridge not of the Rhyme, but the Anglican Coleridge of Aids to Reflection and Opus Maximus. Coleridge needs to be supplemented by any number of other thinkers, Newman proximally, but also phenomenological thinkers such as Husserl and Heidegger in some vein and, by the hermeneutic tradition, especially that of Gadamer. (vi) Coleridge’s failure to present a fully satisfactory account of how will and reason in the self, and the surrounding issues of the relation of self and community, human beings and nature, and all of the above with God, is instructive as well as contingent. It is a kind of parable that in or after modernity no absolute cure is given to us and that what is demanded of us is to be inventive in our pharakon, in light of the fact that modernity itself is generative and always throws up new forms of will, rationality, and community with which we have to deal. We have to be ever mindful, ever caring, and ever medicinal.


  • Thomas Pfau

    Thomas Pfau


    Rethinking the ‘Genealogical Filters’ of Minding the Modern

    Particularly enjoyable about the individual responses that this forum has generated is that each one focuses on a distinct set of issues. Thus I was grateful to receive Cyril O’Regan’s comments, not only for their generous and probing nature, but because he chose to highlight how Minding the Modern relates to other critical genealogies of modernity. His opening remarks do capture very nicely indeed both the spirit and architecture of my argument, such as its “double orchestration” featuring exegetical attention to important thinkers (Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Hobbes, Shaftesbury, and so forth) and supplemented by a secondary focus on similarly intentioned genealogical accounts (MacIntyre, Blumenberg, Taylor, and Dupré). To this list, I should like to add Gadamer and point out that a few other figures (Milbank, Polanyi, the late Husserl) also played an important, if less conspicuous role in helping me frame my book’s conceptual architecture.

    With a fine ear for verbal nuance, O’Regan parses the semantics of “minding” in my book’s title, something for which I am particularly grateful since earlier responses to the book (several of which having appeared at The Immanent Frame1) seemed notably inattentive to, among other things, my argument’s layered intent. O’Regan congenially parses “minding the modern” as containing at least three meanings: (1) “paying attention to . . . what modernity makes possible and forecloses”; (2) understanding modernity as something in need of “minding” as a quasi-medical “taking care of”; and, (3) urging us to become “aware of and perhaps being wary of modernity’s aggressive willfulness.”

    Part of my book’s layered conceptual architecture involves the operation of several “genealogical filters” (Blumenberg, Dupré, Taylor, and MacIntyre) with which O’Regan sees my book in conversation. Of these I have long found Blumenberg’s position, as set forth in the second edition of his Legitimacy of the Modern Age, to be the most tenuous as regards its role in Minding the Modern. To be sure, my argument follows Blumenberg’s magnum opus in that it explores the vacancy left by supposedly “exhausted or defeated discourses and practices” retroactively labeled “pre-modern.” Yet unlike Blumenberg I am not persuaded that modernity’s supersessionist stance masks an inadvertent “reoccupation” (Neubesetzung) of the pre-modern, specifically Gnostic dilemma in the way Blumenberg argues. Rather, I see fragments of older forms of practical reason, and of a therapeutic conception of philosophy, surviving or resurfacing within modern thought at odd intervals and for mostly adventitious reasons.

    O’Regan acknowledges as much when remarking on a persistent asymmetry between my narrative and Blumenberg’s account. A case in point, not specifically flagged by O’Regan, concerns the apparent resemblance of the modern idea of autonomy to the Stoic ideal of autarkeia. While there is a marked morphological affinity between the two concepts, it is hard to maintain that the modern concept of autonomy amounts to a deliberate revival or repurposing of the old Stoic concept. Rather, there is a persistence to philosophical conceptions, such as the ideal of autarkeia, that transcends all intention of a given philosophical school or movement. The apparent convergence of the old with the new here seems neither accidental nor intentional but, rather, inevitable. The high degree of self-awareness that characterizes the practice of philosophy not infrequently distracts from, or indeed positively masks, its dependence on an entirely non-intentional, truly inexorable logic of philosophical and theological traditions of inquiry whereby conceptual patterns and recurrences take shape not by design but, rather, as emergent and inexorable entailments of the movement of thought itself.

    Noting that in my account the dominant figure is that of a “palimpsest,” O’Regan situates Minding the Modern in close proximity to Dupré’s Passage to Modernity, that is, as telling the “story of a fundamental shift in perspective” whereby modern thought has “not only displaced . . . but written or painted over the pre-modern.” Indeed, this “painting over” or principled dismissal and non-engagement of pre-modern traditions of inquiry, and the rejection of a dialectically evolving tradition as the underlying matrix of all humanistic inquiry, is indeed a central concern of Minding the Modern; and O’Regan is correct in observing that, like Dupré’s position, my genealogical model is hermeneutical. I also concur with his appraisal of how Minding the Modern relates to, and in important ways parts ways with, MacIntyre’s uncompromising Aristotelianism in After Virtue. The Platonic tradition, particularly in the way that it was received and inflected by Augustine and, indirectly (through Augustine) by Aquinas, undeniably persists as a steady counterpoint in modern thought. Platonic motifs play a significant role in the intellectual projects of the Cambridge School (Cudworth, More, Smith) and again in Romantic-era thought, particularly in Goethe, Schleiermacher, Novalis, Schelling, Hegel and, of course, in Coleridge. Platonism’s conception of human knowledge as emphatically narrative, process-like, and pivoting on “recollection” (anamnesis) tends to place it at odds with seventeenth- and eighteenth-century rationalism and empiricism alike; and the recovery of Platonic motifs in the above writers is typically animated by a desire to flag the limits (and limitations) of Enlightenment thought in its various manifestations.

    Given this dynamic, which certainly bears some affinity to the earlier MacIntyre’s critique of Enlightenment modernity, his minimal engagement of Platonism and Augustinianism (confined to two short chapters in Whose Justice? Which Rationality?) has often perplexed me. The underlying issue here concerns the way that the Platonist legacy, unlike the Aristotelian one, tends to blur the lines between philosophy and theology or, put differently, points back to their original and indelible entanglement. In focusing on conceptions of will and personhood in particular, Minding the Modern accepts that entanglement as a central and positive stimulus of hermeneutic discovery in either field. By contrast, MacIntyre’s neuralgic unease when it comes to possible theological filiations of his work manifests itself in an intensely vigilant and unmistakably modern insistence on drawing a sharp and impermeable line between these two modes of inquiry. Thus, even as MacIntyre has very influentially reasoned through the theological implications of other philosophical projects, he has also maintained (not altogether persuasively where I am concerned) that such a mode of inquiry can itself unfold independent of faith commitments.

    For one thing, his approach has been rather too restrictive as regards pre-modern voices to be considered as part of his broader philosophical argument. To be sure, one may leap from Aristotle to Aquinas (as in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? and in Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry). Yet in so overleaping Philo, Plotinus, Gregory of Nyssa and other Cappadocians, Augustine, pseudo-Dionysius, Maximus the Confessor, among others one is bound to elide a rich and significantly Plato-inspired tradition for which any partitioning of philosophy from theology, of formal reasoning from exegetical practice would have seemed a very strange proposition indeed. And while MacIntyre has written with admirable lucidity on Aquinas’ integration of key-Aristotelian features into his theology, one should bear in mind the vast narrative arc of the Summa, with its progression from the opening, strictly apophatic approach to God and the Trinity, via explorations of Creation, the Treatises on Man, Government, Law, Last End, followed by Aquinas’ theological anthropology (in the Treatises on the Passions, Habits, and Virtues), and culminating in his discussion of a visio beatifica fully realized in the figure of Christ. The argumentative mode at the level of individual Quaestiones owes much to Aristotle, to be sure; yet the Summa’s overall design unmistakably reflects a Platonic and Augustinian model of spiritual discovery as a narrative progression. Here, too, I find O’Regan’s observations about my book’s underlying architecture and commitments to be both perceptive and compelling, and I entirely share his view that pre-modern thought does not amount to some “a zero-sum game in pre-modernity between Aristotle and Plato.”

    Finally, let me briefly respond to O’Regan’s thoughtful appraisal of the role that Minding the Modern accords to Coleridge as, in O’Regan’s words, the “privileged . . . intellectual figure who most adequately overcomes the manifold disaggregations of modernity.” I don’t quite think that “overcomes” is the right word here. Rather, Coleridge’s importance rests with his having offered a thorough diagnostic account of the forms of reasoning that brought about “the manifold disaggregations of modernity” (O’Regan) and pondering the consequences of that development. This Coleridge was able to do in part because he did not allow his hermeneutic practice to be exclusively indexed to either philosophy or theology. A uniquely gifted and deeply read diagnostician of the lacunae and contradictions bedeviling modern conceptions of the human, Coleridge’s stupendous erudition and dual competence in philosophical and theological argument allowed him to trace modern thought’s often unwitting implication in or failed disengagement from pre-modern frameworks. Hardly any other thinker frames the question of modernity as capaciously as Coleridge and also has the intellectual archive required for hazarding an answer. In Coleridge’s time, only Hegel seems to have the same scope of inquiry, though hardly the same level of exegetical patience and brilliance. Likewise, in the twentieth century only a few thinkers also qualify; Heidegger and, very differently, von Balthasar come to mind, though here, too, only the latter commands the full range of relevant and requisite philosophical and theological traditions. O’Regan notes that Coleridge’s project ultimately fails “to present a fully satisfactory account of will and reason in the self” and how, in light of that failure, his philosophico-theological oeuvre ends up as “a kind of parable that in or after modernity that no absolute cure is given to us.” I ultimately agree and would merely add that, on a far more modest scale of achievement, Minding the Modern warrants the same conclusion.

    1. See especially the comments by Victoria Kahn (“Stacking the Deck”), Borja Vilallonga (“Losing Sight of Reason”), and Elizabeth Pritchard (“Minding the other Modernities”). For my three-part response, see “Modernity as a Hermeneutic Problem,” “The Fantastic Mr. Hobbes,” and “Whose Book? Whose Values? Negotiating Conflicting Interpretations.”

Andrew Grosso


Nominalism, Monotheism, and the Incarnation

THOMAS PFAU’S MINDING THE MODERN is both critical and constructive (or, perhaps more accurately, reconstructive). The critical dimension of his project is evident in his trenchant analysis of various intellectual and behavioral habits that emerged in Western culture during the modern period and developed in ways that ultimately destabilized confidence in both theoretical and practical forms of reasoning. The constructive dimension is manifest in his effort to articulate an account of knowing and being (and the relationship between them) that enables us to recognize the “unfathomable complexity” and “dynamic, steadily evolving contemporaneity” of Western humanistic inquiry (213).

At the heart of the critical dimension of Pfau’s argument is his analysis of the pervasive and corrosive effects of nominalism on Western thought. Pfau indicts Peter Abelard, Francis of Assisi, Bonaventure, Étienne Tempier, and Nicholas of Autrecourt as each to varying degrees responsible for aiding and abetting the development of nominalist tendencies, but fingers William of Ockham as the principal culprit (160–82). William’s voluntarism and “anti-institutional, fideist hyper-Augustinianism” reaches all the way from the thirteenth century into the “Puritanism, Jansenism, . . . [and] German Pietism” of the eighteenth century and thence into “the evangelical and Pentecostal denominationalism of the early nineteenth century” (179), and is evident even still today.

The essential problem at the heart of nominalist thought, Pfau suggests, is its tendency to make purpose (i.e., telos) an indicator of volition rather than of nature (166). This seemingly and ostensibly rather pious move ultimately has the effect of sundering the relationships between God and the world, between the individual and the community, and between humanity and the natural order (167). God is said to exist “at an infinite remove” from the world (169), the divine life being in no way constrained or conditioned by the created order. The autonomous self-determination of God is thence transposed to individual human beings, reducing social interactions to the exercise of power and thereby leading to the collapse of vibrant shared traditions and, ironically, the emergence of statism (185–213). Rather than discovering a “divinely created” rational order in nature, “human knowledge in fact imposes its own paradigms of cognition in lieu of God’s” (176). In short, where previously there existed a vast network of purposeful, meaningful relationships, there remains in the wake of nominalism only a jumbled agglomeration of accidentally related monads.

More than once, Pfau suggests the proliferation of nominalist tendencies during the modern period was to a significant degree a consequence of problems or tensions left over in the Christian tradition from earlier periods. For example, he cites Coleridge’s assessment of “modernity as a renewed confrontation with the unresolved legacy of Gnosticism” (438), a conflict that was “aggravated” following the rejection of scholastic accounts of grace and volition in favor of the more exaggerated treatments of the same that emerged during the Reformation (447). Similarly, Bernard de Mandeville reopened a problem evident in the earlier exposition of the correspondence between “human fate” and “divine providence” provided by Boethius. The problem was resolved by Aquinas, but Mandeville’s insistence on the “absolute primacy” of passion eclipsed the Thomistic solution and thereby recast in more adversarial terms the relationship between reason and volition, and hence between God and humanity (260–64).

Pfau’s demonstration of the extent to which some of the more worrisome tendencies of modern thought should be seen as the recurrence of earlier intellectual errors helps elucidate several of his other arguments. It buttresses his proposal that the emergence of modernity was less a “momentous rupture within a single vector of historical progress” than it was the eclipse of one worldview by an incommensurable alternative (24). Similarly, it lends support to his suggestion that humanistic inquiry has less to do with the kind of “accumulative, inter-subjectively demonstrable, and systematic” knowledge characteristic of the empirical sciences (18–19) and rather more to do with the successful transmission of a tradition marked by the “dialectical and agonistic” contest of ideas pertaining to human identity, agency, and responsibility (69; cf. 75).

I find all of this quite compelling, but would also like to suggest Pfau may not have dug deep enough in the Western tradition in his effort to root out the source of the malaise associated with modern critical thought. Like Pfau, I believe the problem is at its heart essentially theological in nature rather than philosophical (and even less political), but the problem predates Ockham by more than a millennium. The crises brought about as a result of the elaboration of nominalism during the modern period are representative of tensions that can ultimately be traced back to the kind of radical monotheism that first emerged in the Western tradition in the faith and practice of Israel during and after the Babylonian exile.

The shift from polytheism to henotheism to monotheism tends to bring with it a series of attendant developments pertaining to the relationship between God and the world, the correspondence between divine will and human action, and the nature of good and evil. These developments reinforce one another such that the intensification of any one of them tends to lead to a comparable intensification of the others. Relative to the first, monotheism posits a much greater distinction between God and the world than is typical of henotheism or (especially) polytheism: God in no way depends on the world, but the world depends entirely on God. Relative to the second, the radical dependence of the world on God tends to absolutize divine sovereignty: the qualitative difference between God and the world becomes the basis of increasingly voluntaristic accounts of divine action in the world. Relative to the third, a pronounced emphasis on divine sovereignty raises questions having to do with the nature of evil and God’s dominion over injustice, suffering, and death.

These developments tend to be mirrored in concomitant accounts of human identity and experience. The radical distinction between God and the world not only opens up a qualitative distinction between God and human beings, it introduces a significant alterity between (first) human beings and the rest of the natural order and (second) individual human beings one from another; the distinction between God and the world is transposed to other relationships in ways that can push entities apart rather than draw them together. Similarly, an emphasis on divine sovereignty contributes not only to voluntaristic accounts of divine action but of human action as well: the fulfillment of one’s religious obligations (and hence of one’s identity as a creature made in the image of God) increasingly involves the exercise of one’s will in the fulfillment of one’s moral responsibilities (to God, to other human beings, and to the world). Such accounts of human identity and action extend to considerations of the culpability human beings have for evil in the world; indeed, the source of evil is itself articulated in increasingly volitional terms.

I do not have the space here to explore the way these tendencies are manifest in the post-exilic faith and practice of Israel, but I believe it’s reasonable to suggest all of these tendencies were during that period amplified in ways they had not been before. My purpose in making this proposal is to suggest the problems and questions Pfau (rightly) associates with the rise of nominalism are representative of a much deeper tension in the Western tradition. This tension cannot be addressed at a purely philosophical level but require a radically theological solution.

This solution is exemplified in the reconfiguration of radical monotheism that accompanied the development of the doctrine of the incarnation during the patristic conciliar period. The willingness to rethink the doctrine of God in light of the church’s experience and understanding of both Christ and (not at all incidentally) the Spirit brought about an unprecedented account of divine life and action that accommodated the freedom of both God and the world, grounded metaphysics and ontology in the (dynamic and relational) concept of the person rather than in the more abstract category of being, and acknowledged the pervasive and destructive reality of evil without compromising either the sovereignty of God or the responsibility of human beings.

Pfau is of course cognizant of the consequences that follow when we fail to recognize the priority of the doctrine of the incarnation for understanding the doctrine of God. When the “Christological and soteriological dimensions of the spiritual life” are allowed to “wither away,” he says, the result is an anemic understanding of God, humanity, and the world (170). We end up with something like what Colin Gunton described (in Act and Being) as an account of the divine life that is less soteriological than it is cosmological, one that cannot help but resolve itself into some version of deism. Pfau also alludes to the problems that can arise when undue emphasis is placed (as did, he suggests, Francis and Bonaventure) on the “individuality, singularity, and exemplarity” of Jesus at the expense of a fully trinitarian exposition of God’s salvific action (171). He also includes in his exposition of Coleridge an outline of the historical development of the concept of the person within the late patristic and early medieval theological tradition (516–23, 535–55). Despite all this, however, I wonder if attending more explicitly and thoroughly to the priority of the doctrine of the economic trinity over that of the immanent trinity would alter either the critical or the constructive dimensions of Pfau’s project.

As far as the critical dimension of Minding the Modern is concerned, it seems a greater emphasis on the priority of the incarnation and the economic trinity would yield a slightly different reading of history of the Western intellectual tradition. In particular, such a reading would suggest the conciliar tradition represents both a refinement of the burgeoning theological tradition as well as a philosophical achievement of the first order. Not only did the conciliar tradition develop a new way of thinking and speaking about God’s redemptive activity, it also by extension established new ways of approaching questions having to do with metaphysics, action, knowledge, and language. From this vantage point, it seems we might inquire as to whether or not the medieval recovery of Aristotelian categories and logic and their subsequent theological reception represents something of a mixed blessing.

As far as the constructive dimension of Minding the Modern is concerned, approaching questions having to do with identity, agency, and understanding by way of the perspective afforded by the doctrine of the economic trinity would help accentuate the importance of one of the principal concerns of Pfau’s project, namely, the priority of personhood. At the heart of the theological discoveries of the conciliar tradition is that of the person as an inherently integral and dynamic reality oriented towards others in meaningful mutual relations; thus, “understanding the self means understanding its relations, its constitutive embeddedness and participation in the world” (208), which provides the basis for participatory accounts of understanding and articulation. This in turn helps us understand tradition as something that ultimately enables human beings to participate not only in the intellectual heritage of a given culture but in the living reality of the divine life as given to the world by the Father in Christ and the Spirit.

Towards the end of Minding the Modern, Pfau suggests (following John Henry Newman) the loss of appreciation for tradition during the modern period and thereafter is so great that it is not even felt as such: “recovery” is no longer possible because we lack even the sense we have neglected something of vital importance (615–16). In the midst of a cultural crisis of that magnitude, a renewed emphasis on the necessarily personalistic and theological underpinnings of both theoretical and practical reasoning and (especially) on the gift of participation in the divine life that continues to be offered to the world are perhaps the only reliable means of reawakening us to the importance of tradition and all it has to offer to our understanding of human agency and responsible knowledge.

  • Thomas Pfau

    Thomas Pfau


    From Monotheism to Nominalism: Historical Inevitability or Hermeneutic Miscarriage

    I am grateful to Andrew Grosso for his remarks, which attend to another facet of my book. Grosso’s main concern appears to rest with the conceptual and historical origins of nominalism, a proto-modern framework that Minding the Modern sees emerging in the writings of Ockham and his late-Scholastic successors (Biel, Autrecourt). Grosso’s suggestion that the displacement “of one worldview by an incommensurable alternative” had actually occurred well over a millennium prior bears some resemblance to Eugene Webb’s comments. Like Webb, that is, Grosso locates the sources for modern voluntarist and nominalist epistemologies firmly within theology, rather than supposing that a putatively intact medieval synthesis suddenly found itself besieged by forces outside of theology. Already sketched in Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy (1967) and more recently developed in Louis Dupré’s Passage to Modernity (1993) and Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007), this thesis—viz., that conceptual shifts intrinsic to theology had given rise to a long and uneven history of secularization—retains a lot of its appeal, and Minding the Modern at times draws on it.

    Yet to do so is only to have begun the work of exploration and understanding, for the question that now arises concerns the specific nature of shifts within theology that could have effected such a profound estrangement of human nature and, ultimately, of creation itself from its divine creator. Just when and how was it that kosmos (“order”) came to be redefined as dumb matter or adventitiously organized “stuff” (natura naturata)? And what caused the idea of God to mutate from a vivid, all-encompassing and sustaining presence—concurrently also the telos of all human striving—into a remote, inscrutable, and seemingly ill-tempered super-power? In an admittedly brief and selective discussion of Tempier, Ockham, and the vicissitudes of Scholastic theology following Stephen Tempier’s 1277 condemnations, Minding the Modern offers one plausible story in response to these questions. Grosso advances another.

    His rather more startling claim is that the emergence of nominalist framework such as posits a universe unaccountably made (and forever liable to be unmade) by an enigmatic and omnipotent divine will, should actually be located in sixth-century BCE. As he puts it, the origins of the bifurcation between the finite and transcendent realms are to be sought in the “shift from polytheism to henotheism to monotheism,” which in turn can be “traced back to . . . the faith and practice of Israel during and after the Babylonian exile.”

    Now, being mindful of my limited expertise as regards the historical and cultural dynamics and practices of sixth- and fifth-century (BCE) Israel, I won’t comment on the historical lineaments of Grosso’s alternative account. Instead, I shall merely offer a few reflections on what I take to be peculiar theological presuppositions and entailments of Rosso’s proposed genealogy of theological nominalism. Even this premise that “monotheism posits a much greater distinction between God and the world than is typical of henotheism or (especially) polytheism” already perplexes. For to put it that way risks treating the historical shift toward monotheism as a matter of arithmetic, with various (presumably anthropomorphic) deities gradually being subtracted and, in time, leaving us with but a single, omnipotent, and  unfathomable super-deity holding and capriciously pulling all the strings that lead down to the finite, created realm. By Grosso’s reasoning, monotheism inevitably precipitates an estrangement of creator from creature, renders divine sovereignty unintelligible and likely menacing. At least implicitly, this line of argument also casts doubt on the very possibility of any meaningful participation in the divine on the part of human beings, a doubt that, once indulged, strikes me as liable to atrophy the meaningfulness and efficacy of liturgical practice and, ultimately, of ecclesiastic communities as such.

    To risk a well-known analogy, for Grosso monotheism by its very nature leaves us with an alien God of the sort often imputed to Milton’s Paradise Lost, especially if one subscribes (as one arguably shouldn’t) to the perspective on “Heav’n’s matchless King” by his defeated rival. Satan’s phrase not only contains a covert reference to what in 1649 had been done with a king—suggesting that a similar treatment ought to be visited on a yet higher authority. It also frames the triumphant sovereignty of monotheism’s God as the outcome of a power struggle seemingly disconnected from notions of truth, goodness, and right reason. Milton’s strategy throughout Paradise Lost is, of course, to restage the dynamics of temptation and mankind’s Fall by inviting readers to become seduced by sin, a process that begins when we allow ourselves to become ensnared by Satan’s competitive and adversarial theology. To the reader thus led astray, the omnipotent God of monotheistic Christianity will indeed appear the very apotheosis of Ockham’s voluntarism; and from there on, theology only faces one more step—the familiar one moving us from the sublime to the ridiculous so obligingly taken by William Empson who famously depicts Milton’s God as really “astonishingly like Uncle Joe Stalin,” with the same benevolent, jovial smile masking the same irascible and genocidal temper, etc.

    Now, I readily concede that Empson’s misreading of Milton is hardly an isolated case. Rather, it stems from an unfortunate habit of theological reasoning dating back, certainly to the Manicheans confronted by Augustine and, perhaps (as Grosso surmises) even to intellectual habits first cultivated by the people of Israel during their long exile. The habit in question involves construing divine sovereignty as sheer executive power and imagining potestas as a mindless and efficient causation, or physical “force,” gratuitously and mercilessly projected onto the finite world, rather than as auctoritascaritas, and right reason freely bestowed and are unconstrained by time and space. Far more than in Ockham, it is in Hobbes’ Leviathan that we find this view unfolded with eerie magnificence three centuries later (cf. MTM 185–205). Where Empson means to indict Milton’s God, he seems but a (possibly unwitting) captive of Hobbes highly politicized and anthropomorphic misconstrual of Christian monotheism according to which divine power pivots not on knowledge revealed but on power gratuitously seized and subsequently (just as gratuitously) enforced.

    The larger point that needs to be made, also in response to Grosso’s alternate history, is that any monotheist conception that construes power as so much alien, exclusionary, and overwhelming sound and fury signally fails to honor the transcendent dimension of potestas—viz., as a gift of knowledge in which, however partially revealed and imperfectly grasped, we are asked to participate. Clearly, Grosso and I agree that monotheistic Christianity was not eo ipso destined to expire in a voluntarist framework; and the misconstrual of sovereignty as God’s proprietary and efficient power to command, force, so seductively proffered by Milton’s Satan (and concurrently inferred from the physical structure of the material universe by Hobbes’ naturalism) was anything but inevitable. Still, the ultimate struggle here is not over intellectual discretion but the very coherence of theology. Hence I would argue that voluntarist conceptions of divine omnipotence do not simply offer a different perspective God’s “sovereignty” but one that fails the elemental test of truth, viz., by proving internally contradictory and, ultimately, wrong. At the very least, it is erroneous to suppose a surfeit of efficient force, of quantifiable might, to be all that distinguishes God from man. To take that view is to obscure the pivotal role of transcendence and grace in Christian theology.

    Naturally, I understand that Grosso does not himself endorse a construal of divine omnipotence such as I have just sketched. Rather, he suggests that this miscarriage of Christian monotheism continued to be a constant liability to theological practice well into the later middle ages. For Grosso, it is only with the rise of the conciliar tradition (for which Ockham in his later years emerged as an intellectual founder of sorts) and a shift from an immanent to an economic understanding of the Trinity that a genuine remedy presents itself. Conciliarism in particular, he argues, constitutes a major step in the right direction, a “refinement” and “philosophical achievement of the first order.” Grosso’s suggestion that closer attention to these late medieval and early modern developments might have somewhat altered the arc of my narrative in Minding the Modern rings true to me. My non-engagement of the Reformation in particular (a regrettable omission that I acknowledge early on (MTM 75) naturally elides several important theological and historical developments, conciliarism being one of these. I am less persuaded, however, by Grosso’s claim among the “theological discoveries” of conciliarism was “that of the person as an inherently integral and dynamic reality oriented towards others in meaningful mutual relations.” Conciliarism may have reemphasized that particular feature and, perhaps, located a conceptual warrant for it in an economic interpretation of the Trinity. Yet as I show in my discussion of Richard of St. Victor (MTM 547-51), the relational model of personhood was already firmly established by the twelfth century.

    By way of returning to the bigger picture, let me close with two observations here. First, drawing on my understanding of the dialectical operation of a tradition, I would maintain that the tensions intrinsic to the monotheist framework had to be gradually understood and thought through. That painstaking and slow process is precisely what defines tradition as a dynamic, trans-generational, and incrementally clarifying mode of reflection. It acknowledges and wrestles with a problem at the level of interpretive understanding, rather than framing knowledge as a timeless and objective property secured by acts of unilateral and supposedly definitive emancipation from inherited questions. In sharp contrast to Enlightenment conceptions of progress, the dialectical movement of theological reflection that has been unfolding for more than two millennia does not feature “discoveries” or “refinements” in the sense of actual solutions to mysteries of the faith. Hence, new developments (such as conciliarism) amount simply to a new way of configuring what remain necessarily finite and imperfect perspectives on any number of theological issues. On philosophical grounds, that is, I would maintain that a dialectical conception of theological tradition and hermeneutic participation to which it enjoins  individuals and interpretive communities, categorically precludes any anthropomorphic ideas of “progress” or conceptual “solutions.” It does, however, offer a progressively fuller awareness of the mysteries of faith and the boundless exegetical riches that centuries of scriptural reading, commentary, and theological reflections have placed at our disposal.

    My second point, more political or sociological in nature, also pertains to Grosso’s emphasis on the theological benefits of conciliarism. Inasmuch as the dialectical movement of theological reflection (and hermeneutic activity more generally) is impersonal and trans-generational, it seems doubtful that conciliarism’s synchronization of so many voices could ever yield the kind of theological clarity that its proponents appear to have in mind. To be sure, conciliarism may promise to achieve a theologico-political consensus of sorts, at least for a while; yet practical experience in theological matters no less than in everyday politics strongly suggests that a hard-won consensus is more likely to forestall than secure clarity about the particular matter at hand. Perhaps Grosso’s perspective and my own simply diverge on this point in ways one might expect to happen in a conversation between an Anglican and a Catholic. Yet I believe that the key issue goes deeper than that.

    To capture the salient point, we may recall some pertinent remarks by T. S. Eliot who, by 1931 an intensely devout and thoughtful Anglo-Catholic, offers some choice remarks about the recently concluded council of Anglican bishops at Lambeth. As Eliot notes, “it ought not to be an occasion to us for mirth that three hundred bishops together assembled should, on pooling their views on most momentous matters, come out with a certain proportion of nonsense.” Throughout his “Thoughts after Lambeth,” Eliot questions the popular assumption that a majority consensus, hammered out at coffee-stained tables in smoke-filled rooms, and expressed with a mix of commonplace rhetoric and “journalistic hyperbole,” could possibly advance the cause of theology, let alone enhance the spiritual lives of the faithful. Instead, Eliot is quite dubious about the bishops’ strained euphoria about “a great intellectual stirring among the rising generation.” As he wryly remarks, “there can hardly be a great intellectual stirring . . . because the number of persons in any generation capable of being greatly stirred intellectually is always and everywhere very, very small.”

    Being bound up with contingent institutional and material realities, a conciliar approach to theological reasoning is destined to dissolve, sooner or later, into political transactionalism. Thus, as questions of transcendent truth and normativity are gradually reframed as procedural issues, the impersonal logic of theological reflection will be supplanted by a quasi-parliamentary and inter-personal dynamic that deflects mysteries of the faith into concerns with moral and social propriety. And where faith has been construed as an entailment of the prevailing morality, a purely anthropomorphic and procedural model of theological “discovery” is bound to prevail. Now, I readily concede that Grosso’s remarks do not intend or endorse such an outcome; and I suppose he would agree with Eliot’s note of protest, viz., that “I have not adopted my faith in order to defend my views of conduct.” Still, Grosso invests the idea of conciliarism (rather more than its troubled reality) with “offering a new way of thinking and speaking about God’s redemptive activity” and, at least potentially, with a capacity of conclusively settling theological questions.

    For my part, I doubt that a conciliar model, or indeed any corporate approach to the task of reflection and thought, can ever deliver what it promises. For one thing, it is not clear to me what relation, if any, conciliarism’s “new ways” have to the immanent, dialectical movement of tradition, which Grosso simultaneously credits with “enab[ling] human beings to participate not only in the intellectual heritage of a given culture but in the reality of the divine life.” Much depends on how these two domains of reflection, one lateral (socio-cultural) and the other vertical (transcendent), are sequenced. Even more troubling about conciliarism is its intimation of a Pelagian narrative of human-engineered progress gradually usurping the role of grace, both enabling and cooperative. Similar misgivings surface at various points in “Thoughts after Lambeth,” with Eliot demurring at just this sort of procedural optimism which, regardless of quite any particular “conclusions” purportedly reached, misconstrues the nature of theological reflection from the very outset. Answering the TLS reviewer of his essay collection For Lancelot Andrewes, who “in words of great seriousness . . . [had] pointed out that I had suddenly arrested my progress,” Eliot muses: “whither he had supposed me to be moving I do not know.” The very assumption of such “progress” and of an underlying, corporate model of theological reasoning, strikes Eliot as the symptom of a larger spiritual and intellectual malaise, one that regrettably had also infiltrated the bishops’ council at Lambeth:

    For it meant that the orthodox faith of England is at last relieved from its burden of respectability. A new respectability has arisen to assume the burden; and those who would once have been considered intellectual vagrants are now pious pilgrims, cheerfully plodding the road from nowhere to nowhere, trolling their hymns, satisfied so long as they may be “on the march.”
William Robert


Concerning Method

Of Narrative and Names

BEFORE BEGINNING, I TENDER a double confession.

(1) Encountering Thomas Pfau’s Minding the Modern, I feel a bit like Theaetetus. “By the gods,” Theaetetus confesses to Socrates, “I am lost in wonder when I think of all these things, and sometimes when I regard them it really makes my head swim.”1 This confession is not furtive critique. It’s appreciation, or admiration: wonder (the first of the soul’s passions, on René Descartes’s account). Minding the Modern is a big book whose scope and sweep are big—and really impressive. “By any fair assessment,” Brad Gregory admits, “Minding the Modern is a remarkable intellectual achievement.”2

(2) I cheated. My previous sentence gives me away. I read the Immanent Frame forum on Minding the Modern, from fall 2014 (, including Pfau’s response. So I write knowing this exchange. And I write in response to Pfau’s response to it. Pfau laments that most of the Immanent Frame responses “passed over in almost complete silence the first seven chapters of Minding the Modern.”3 He adds, “I would have welcomed at least some methodological reflections on the conceptual architecture of Minding the Modern.”4

I would like to (try to) give Pfau what he asks for: engagement on premodern and methodological matters. I do so in three movements. Each is partial, limited. Still, each tries to respond to Pfau’s text, via a double hermeneutic of charity and critique (which ≠ criticism).


The era of petits récits is over. Grand narratives are back. Minding the Modern is one.

These statements are diagnostic, not disparaging. They’re statements of method. (In other words, they’re judgments.) Minding the Modern’s method is narrative. That it is—narrative—matters. It makes a difference.

A narrative précis: Minding the Modern tells a grand, genealogical story, of will and person. They are this narrative’s protagonists, and their retrieval this narrative’s aim. This story, like most good ones, has good guys and bad guys. (And they are guys.5) Its good guys include Plato, Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (this story’s hero, in a way). Its bad guys include Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, David Hume, Adam Smith, and—baddest of all—William of Ockham. This story also has benevolent guides, who show the way. They include Hans Blumenberg, Louis Dupré, Alasdair MacIntyre, John Milbank, and Charles Taylor.

I recount Minding the Modern this way to emphasize that it’s a story—a narrative, a grand one. It’s a narrative of Bildung: of formation, development. No accident, then, that in the index under “narrative,” it reads “see also flourishing.”

Minding the Modern takes its narrative cue from, among others, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Coleridge. Their writings, Pfau notes, “are liable to disconcert today’s critic with their grand narrative design.”6 And that, Pfau judges, is a good thing. What disconcerts “today’s critic” provokes Pfau. He, with Goethe and Coleridge, provokes us: “to move away from a parochial and hermetic niche-criticism whose historicist and materialist assumptions and methodologies have steadily diminished the scope and stakes of intellectual argument in the humanities today.”7

How has this diminishing happened? By diminishing knowledge and judgment (prohairesis) to information and methodology.

(Methodology is my word, not Pfau’s. I import it to distinguish between Minding the Modern’s two senses of method: as framework and as tool.8 I reserve “method” for the former, which Minding the Modern appreciates, and use “methodology” to name the latter, which Minding the Modern depreciates.)

A methodology is a tool. It names a fixed procedure, sure of its rectitude, that applies itself ahistorically to any number of objects, phenomena, situations. Think of the scientific method, as a methodology of achieving data; or of Descartes’s radical doubt, as a methodology of achieving certainty; or of bad deconstruction in the 80s, as a methodology of seeming intellectually chic.

As a tool, a methodology is reductive. It reduces knowledge to value-free information, separated into ever smaller, ever specialized spaces.9 A methodology is a tool for specialization.10 And specialization is what “today’s critic” would call “scholarship.” This methodology installs itself as, Pfau writes, “the successor to judgment (prohairesis),” which is “a hermeneutic and evaluative act.”11

Knowledge and judgment, hermeneutics and evaluation, are narrative matters. Narrative is Minding the Modern’s shape as well as method. And method, it turns out, is narrative. A method names a methodos: a way, path, journey—one that affects a person who follows it. A method, Pfau writes, “carries with it a strong narrative dimension.”12

So method and narrative, in Minding the Modern, are imbricated. Method has a narrative element. And narrative is a method. Minding the Modern’s method, its methodos, is doubly narrative.

It tells a narrative about narratives, of will and person. And it tells this narrative from in a narrative. Minding the Modern is in, not above or outside of, the story it tells. It, too, is in a hermeneutic framework—which, as Pfau notes, affects the telling and the teller.

Minding the Modern also reads narratives as narratives, with care. It has to. “Any account,” Pfau insists, “of competing or intersecting intellectual traditions has to rest on the kind of close, textual analysis that, at its best, has always been the bread and butter of literary studies.”13 So Minding the Modern “is committed to close textual analysis as its principal method.”14

This method is the way, the methodos, of becoming “alert to the profound stakes of its [intellectual history’s] contested ideas and genealogies of inquiry.”15 It requires that, Pfau writes, “one must pay scrupulous attention to the rhetorical maneuvers, metaphoric shifts, ellipses, competing translations, and countless stylistic quirks and symptoms of its preeminent voices.”16

Minding the Modern’s (doubly) narrative method distinguishes it from other, similar stories. These stories are less stories than “high-altitude surveys of intellectual shifts and diverse, often competing strands of inquiry.”17 Some of them mark William of Ockham (as Minding the Modern does) as where things went wrong. But Minding the Modern novelly attends to William, and nominalism, as a narrative problem. “Can narrative,” Pfau asks, “still aspire to exemplarity, let alone universality? Can it still be ‘representative’ of anything beyond its own, singular occurrence? And can there be anything like a meaningful ‘plot’ in a world composed of strictly singular and thus ostensibly a-rational entities and subjects?”18

Minding the Modern’s narrative method also enables a suggestive approach to Thomas Aquinas, to whom I now turn. Thomas, Pfau suggests, “understands freedom as a transition from potentiality to actuality and, as such, conceives it narratively.”19 For “action in Aquinas unfolds as a complex and sustained interpretive and evaluative process.”20

Before passing from narratives to names, I offer one small query: why does Minding the Modern not include Paul Ricœur? His Time and Narrative begins, as Minding the Modern does, with Aristotle and Augustine. And his hermeneutic sensibility (and sensitivity) makes him seem, at least to me, like an obvious character in Pfau’s grand narrative. So I find Ricœur’s absence a bit puzzling.


Thomas Aquinas plays a vital role in Minding the Modern’s narrative. It’s no surprise that he does. His role in Minding the Modern is as synthesizer of Aristotelian and Augustinian lineages. For example, Pfau writes, “following Augustine, Aquinas accords ‘relation’ a unique place, above and beyond the other nine Aristotelian categories (praedicamenta).”21 Relation is neither accidental or occasional. It’s “an ontological characteristic of being.”Ibid. This citation indirectly refers to Summa Theologiae 1.3.4 (cited by part, question, and article).22

And it’s no surprise that Minding the Modern, focused on will and person, focuses on those parts of Thomas’s Summa Theologiae that directly address will and person. Given the narrative that Minding the Modern tells, focusing on those parts makes sense.

But Summa Theologiae is, in its way, also a narrative—a grand one. It’s a narrative of (in the briefest possible terms) God and relations to God, which unfold humanly (through sacra doctrina) in relation to reason and revelation, nature and grace. It has to be, since, Thomas writes, “all things are treated in sacra doctrina under the aspect of God, either because those things are God himself or because they are ordered”—related—“to God as origin and end.”23

So jumping to the parts of the narrative on will and person misses part—a crucial part—of Summa’s story: the beginning. (It also misses a key character in Summa’s narrative: Pseudo-Dionysius.) Without the beginning, the story doesn’t, and can’t, make the same sense.

How does Summa’s story begin? With names, God’s names. As Thomas tells it, God’s ultimate name is Being. For Dionysius (and others, including Bonaventure), Good is God’s ultimate name. Dionysius, Thomas writes, “places good before being among the names of God,” because for Dionysius “the good is conceptually prior to being.”24 Thomas, though, maintains that “being is conceptually prior to good.”25 The first name of God, in Thomas’s theological narrative, is Being.

Why do names matter? Because it’s in narrating God’s names that Thomas narrates his idea—his method—of analogy as a mode of relation to God through language (or, for that matter, through anything else).26 It’s also in narrating God’s names that Thomas articulates his theory of participation, on which relations to God depend.27

(Names also matter in relation to nominalism’s wrong turn, away from Thomas. “Much of nominalism’s impact,” Pfau writes, “on subsequent theology, philosophy, science, and political thought flows from Bishop Tempier’s commitment in his 1277 condemnation to accord God unconditional priority over every other value or ‘divine name.’”28)

Naming God as Being informs the entire theological narrative that follows. It engenders the “ontology of ‘being and truth’” in which Thomas locates personhood and will.29 It’s why for Thomas, relation “is an ontological characteristic of being.”30 Again, Thomas recognizes relation in this way thanks to his theory of participation, which owes to his naming of God.

Naming God as Being also mobilizes the great role that grace plays in Thomas’s and Pfau’s narratives. Grace, on Thomas’s telling, is what perfects nature, which is how humans can know anything in relation to God (like God’s names).31 Grace—its “unconditional and non-negotiable priority,” as gift—is what, in Pfau’s narrative, “negates from the outset modernity’s axiomatic idea of knowledge as a strictly autonomous act, and of human rational agents as epistemologically self-determining and self-legitimating.”32

So grace is really important in both narratives (Thomas’s and Pfau’s). And knowing both narratives is really important, to know how one relates to the other.

I don’t raise these points about divine names to suggest that Minding the Modern misreads Thomas’s text. I don’t think it does. But I do think it misses an important part of Thomas’s theological story—a part that helps to explain the part of Thomas’s story that Minding the Modern engages, as well as nominalist responses to Thomas’s theology that it takes up.

And I think a fuller treatment of Thomas’s narrative reiterates that it is a narrative, a rich and complicated one, with a beginning and an end: a narratives that moves “from prima philosophia (metaphysics) to sacra doctrina (theological wisdom) to a mystical visio beatifica.”33 This narrative arc is important, too—but that’s another story.


Running short of space, I can only sketch this third movement.

I find Minding the Modern’s treatment of Franciscans wanting. Francis of Assisi and Bonaventure each earn only one mention, which (without any textual support) accuses their emphasis on Christ’s singularity of prompting the wrong turn that nominalism takes. Such a claim calls for narrative attention, especially concerning such a complex issue.

William of Ockham is the one who, in Minding the Modern, takes that fateful (or fatal?) wrong turn. So William serves as a crucial hinge in Minding the Modern’s narrative. Despite his importance, there is less close textual reading in this chapter than in any other. There is instead a reliance on secondary summaries and glosses. I’m left wanting, from a moment of weakness in narrative and method at this all-important turning point in the story.

But a moment of weakness is a moment. It’s not the whole story—not by a lot.


  1. Plato, Theaetetus, 155c, in Works, vol. 7, trans. Harold North Fowler (Cambridge: Harvard University Press / Loeb Classical Library, 1921). I thank Mary-Jane Rubenstein for pointing me toward this translation.


  3. https:/C:/dev/home/ These quotations are from the third of Pfau’s three-part response. The Immanent Frame published only the first two parts, with a link to this third part.

  4. https:/C:/dev/home/ Pfau names specifically Minding the Modern’s “critique of a detached historicism; its advocacy of hermeneutic struggle; its methodological preference for modern phenomenology (and its distant sources in Platonist thought); its commitment to a highly fluid and irresistibly ‘current’ understanding of intellectual traditions.”

  5. Minding the Modern includes a few feminine voices: G. E. M. Anscombe’s, Hannah Arendt’s, Iris Murdoch’s, Martha Nussbaum’s. But they are few, and far between.

  6. Thomas Pfau, Minding the Modern: Human Agency, Intellectual Traditions, and Responsible Knowledge (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013), 435.

  7. Pfau, Minding the Modern, 435.

  8. “Method” can have more than two senses. Pfau cites Michael Buckley’s methodological fourfold: operational, logistic, dialectical, and problematic. The first two apply to objects. The second two concern not objects, Pfau writes, but “entire ‘conceptions’ of knowledge . . . a historically conditioned discursive formation” (Minding the Modern, 30).

  9. It also robs phenomena of agency. And as Coleridge insists, “phenomena are themselves a source of knowledge; they have agency”: “an actual and active presence as catalysts of inner (and likely transformative) experience” (Minding the Modern, 568; see also 403).

  10. This methodology-tool has six moves, which Minding the Modern articulates as six axioms: of specialization, contextualism, skepticism, (marketplace) pluralism, knowledge as emancipation, and critique as guarantor of historical progress (Minding the Modern, 425–27). Under these axioms is another: that modernity, self-creating and self-legitimating, depends on a radical break with the past. (Such a break produces a narrative break, and the end of a methodos—which doesn’t make for a good story.)

  11. Pfau, Minding the Modern, 435, 92. Highlighting the “teleological, narrative dimension of judgment” is what enables Pfau to translate prohairesis as “‘ethical intent,’ ‘moral purpose,’ or ‘commitment’” (Minding the Modern, 93).

  12. Ibid., 30.

  13. Ibid., 65.

  14. Ibid., 75; see also 163. Minding the Modern proceeds, Pfau adds, “through a series of forensic readings of representative arguments” (ibid., 65).

  15. Ibid., 65.

  16. Ibid.

  17. Ibid.

  18. Ibid., 172.

  19. Ibid., 141.

  20. Ibid., 139.

  21. Ibid., 139.

  22. Ibid. This citation indirectly refers to Summa Theologiae 1.3.4 (cited by part, question, and article).

  23. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1.1.7. My citations of QQ1–13 of Summa Theologiae are from The Treatise on the Divine Nature: “Summa Theologiae” I 1–13, trans. Brian J. Shanley (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2006).

  24. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1.5.2.

  25. Ibid. As authoritative supports, Thomas cites Aristotle’s Metaphysics and The Book of Causes—thought at the time to be Aristotelian, though Thomas is perhaps the first to recognize it as Neoplatonic (excerpted from Proclus). This recognition already complicates the picture of Thomas.

  26. On analogy, see Summa Theologiae, 1.3.5; see also 1.13.1, on God’s namability.

  27. On participation, see Summa Theologiae, 1.3.4.

  28. Pfau, Minding the Modern, 164.

  29. Ibid., 143 (my emphasis).

  30. Ibid., 135 (my emphasis).

  31. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1.1.8.

  32. Pfau, Minding the Modern, 154. This link of grace and gift in Thomas is what enables Pfau to include phenomenologist like Jean-Luc Marion in Minding the Modern’s narrative.

  33. Pfau, Minding the Modern, 140.

  • Thomas Pfau

    Thomas Pfau


    On the (In)Commensurability of Narrative and Method

    I ought to thank William Robert for his remarks on my book and for the various instances of “fraternal correction” that he offers. As these go, I am basically in agreement with him. Thus Paul Ricoeur’s work, especially Time and Narrative, should have been factored in; it is obviously a congenial and at the same time impressively thoughtful meditation on issues and writers that are altogether central to Minding the Modern. Likewise, Robert is right to express regret at the near-total elision of Francis of Assisi and Bonaventure. Particularly the latter’s great Itinerarium Mentis in Deum would have helped give a more complex texture to my somewhat jaundiced account of the Franciscan stress on the personal and charismatic nature of spiritual narrative. Likewise, Robert is right to note that the broader narrative dimension of the Summa Theologiae is largely eclipsed by my more technical and exegetical approach to Aquinas’ conception of will, personhood, and grace. As it happens, twice in my responses to other commentators at this forum (Webb and O’Regan) I have found myself stressing precisely this larger narrative arc of the Summa and its residual Platonic underpinnings. I thus take Robert’s points very much as friendly amendments, or as considerations that—had I entertained them at the right moment, or had there been more space in an already very long book—would almost certainly have enriched my argument. Whether they would have significantly altered the narrative unfolded by Minding the Modern is, perhaps, less clear.

    Robert’s overarching concern, meanwhile, has to do with the role of narrative in my work and, also, how that work itself deploys the idea of narrative as a foil to a distinctly modern, science-based conception of method. Yet here I confess to not being entirely persuaded by Robert’s distinction between “method” and “methodology.” At various points, he claims that “Minding the Modern’s method is narrative” and that “narrative is a method.” While Robert is right, of course to note that my argument is sharply critical of a certain conception of method (or, in Robert’s adjusted nomenclature, “methodology”), I find his reintroduction and association of method with narrative problematic. For it is bound to obscure key qualities within narrative that must not be overlooked. To the extent that narrative involves us in a quest for understanding a complex reality, rather than shrinking reality to the scope of non-falsifiable and formally coherent propositions, it is fundamentally risk-fraught. Any worthwhile narrative endeavor must countenance the possibility of its wholesale miscarriage. Unlike method, which will either take us to positive certainty or, barring that, still “finds direction by indirection” in the event that its particular approach to a problem leads nowhere, a narrative quest may fail in ways that preclude any knowledge whatsoever.

    Rather than assimilating narrative to a certain (positive) sense of method, then, I see it bearing a marked affinity to the concept of “play.”1 It is aleatory and improvisational; it is not something we deploy transitively (as one does with this or that method). Rather, narrative constitutes a self-regulating, dialectical progression that we inhabit, a virtual reality in which we can participate only by suspending our contingent subjectivity and interestedness. Like play, narrative constitutes an “event” rather than a “technique.” It is not something “deployed” or “experienced” by an already formed, autonomous subject. Instead, it constitutes a symbolic structure that frees us from the burden of our subjectivity and fixed objectives. Narrative and play alike thus are geared toward discovery of the unpredictable, rather than to the verification of probabilities. They must not be misconstrued as discrete (and discretionary) techniques of representation and reflection but, instead, constitute a distinct and holistic type of practice and action.

    Furthermore, narrative (again like play) is not linear and progressive (in the way we tend to understand a method to be operating) but recursive. That is, a narrative crucially involving a complex, bi-directional temporality manifested in repetition, alternation, anticipation, recollection, and so forth—all of which cumulatively enable the participant in the narrative to grasp its overarching structure. As is the case with recursive logic of play, narrative involves an element of pleasure, which again sets it apart from the drudgery of a method (or “methodology”) that tends to be applied with the fullest possible anticipation of a definitive and predictable “outcome.” Finally, narrative differs from method because its quest for understanding involves a dialectical, rather than linear progression. Importantly, this means that narrative can only succeed as a dialectical engagement of other perspectives; it depends on the reality of those other perspectives (or other “players”) and can succeed only if it does not seek to dominate, negate, or otherwise “overcome” them.

    Robert’s claim and seeming endorsement that, in Minding the Modern, “knowledge and judgment, hermeneutics and evaluation, are narrative matters” does indeed comport to my intention. Yet for the reasons just stated, I am rather less comfortable with his suggestion, immediately following the previous statement, that “narrative is [my book’s] shape as well as method. And method, it turns out, is narrative.” To me, the terms are not ultimately convertible, not only because narrative (and play) involves us in a different ontology than method—a virtual, risk-laden, and aleatory one rather than one defined by interest, verifiability, and predictability. The two concepts should also be kept distinct because, as I show at various points in Minding the Modern, of the domineering and reductionist tendencies of modern, science-derived methodologies, which tend to dispute or peremptorily discredit the reality of phenomena that they cannot control on their own terms. That said, the way in which Robert proposes to draw the distinction between method and methodology suggests that he has to a certain extent anticipated the nature of my misgivings.