Minding the Modern
Human Agency, Intellectual Traditions, and Responsible Knowledge
684 pages, 7.00 x 10.00 , 1 halftone
Paperback | 9780268038441 | February 2015
Hardcover | 9780268038403 | October 2013
eBook (Web PDF) | 9780268158200 | February 2015
eBook (EPUB) | 9780268089856 | February 2015
In this brilliant study, Thomas Pfau argues that the loss of foundational concepts in classical and medieval Aristotelian philosophy caused a fateful separation between reason and will in European thought. Pfau traces the evolution and eventual deterioration of key concepts of human agency—will, person, judgment, action—from antiquity through Scholasticism and on to eighteenth-century moral theory and its critical revision in the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Featuring extended critical discussions of Aristotle, Gnosticism, Augustine, Aquinas, Ockham, Hobbes, Shaftesbury, Mandeville, Hutcheson, Hume, Adam Smith, and Coleridge, this study contends that the humanistic concepts these writers seek to elucidate acquire meaning and significance only inasmuch as we are prepared positively to engage (rather than historicize) their previous usages. Beginning with the rise of theological (and, eventually, secular) voluntarism, modern thought appears increasingly reluctant and, in time, unable to engage the deep history of its own underlying conceptions, thus leaving our understanding of the nature and function of humanistic inquiry increasingly frayed and incoherent. One consequence of this shift is to leave the moral self-expression of intellectual elites and ordinary citizens alike stunted, which in turn has fueled the widespread notion that moral and ethical concerns are but a special branch of inquiry largely determined by opinion rather than dialogical reasoning, judgment, and practice.
A clear sign of this regression is the present crisis in the study of the humanities, whose role is overwhelmingly conceived (and negatively appraised) in terms of scientific theories, methods, and objectives. The ultimate casualty of this reductionism has been the very idea of personhood and the disappearance of an adequate ethical language. Minding the Modern is not merely a chapter in the history of ideas; it is a thorough phenomenological and metaphysical study of the roots of today's predicaments.
Thomas Pfau is the Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of English and professor of German at Duke University, with a secondary appointment on the Duke Divinity School faculty. He is the author and editor of a number of books, including Romantic Moods: Paranoia, Trauma, and Melancholy, 1790–1840.
"By returning the concerns of the 'big books' to literary studies, Pfau hopes to deliver the humanities in general from the methodological dead ends of historicism and reductionist approaches imported from the hard sciences. . . . Whether sympathetic or hostile to Pfau's arguments, readers will find them a useful provocation. The ensuing debate, and the intellectual traditions it will engage, could help restore seriousness and urgency to the humanities." —The Hedgehog Review
". . . like Charles Taylor (A Secular Age) and Brad Gregory (The Unintended Reformation), Pfau is a man equipped for the enormous cartographic task of remapping the rise of modernity. . . . Minding the Modern is not history, nor is Pfau a historian. Instead, it is an extended, historically grounded close reading of texts that an accomplished literature professor is well equipped to provide. . . . Pfau focuses his wide-ranging account by choosing the (admittedly enormous) category of human personhood, and its corollaries of will and agency, as the vehicle in which he takes his tour of the ages. His express aim is 'to capture the intrinsic idea of will and person through a series of forensic readings of representative arguments.'" —Books & Culture
“Thomas Pfau’s Minding the Modern offers its readers one of the most substantial historical discussions now available on the relationship between human will, intellect and reason.” —The Immanent Frame
"Pfau's book is rich and deserving a look. . . . Anyone interested in the history of philosophy or teaching in a humanities program should have this book on their shelves to help build their lectures, giving them a perspective to share with students that provides opportunities for questioning some of our key humanistic terms." —Augustinian Studies
"Minding the Modern is an immensely rich genealogy and critique of modernity. For years to come, its innovative phenomenological approach promises to be at the center of debates in theology, philosophy, and other humanistic disciplines about what it means to be human and about the direction the humanities themselves should take." —The Review of Metaphysics
“. . . Minding the Modern is highly stimulating, methodologically self-aware and admirably audacious . . . . Part One offers a brilliant methodological reflection on the commitments and aims of the book. The seventy pages of these Prolegomena count among the most original and inspiring parts of the book and hopefully find a wide readership . . . . Minding the Modern will rightfully be seen as a serious, lucid contribution to the search of a new method for the humanities after modernity.” —Reviews in Religion and Theology
“Thomas Pfau’s Minding the Modern, a groundbreaking work that may aptly be compared to studies by Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre, develops a sustained argument about the concept of human agency from Aristotle to the present day. Against the loss of deliberative agency, Pfau persuasively demonstrates why the idea of the person remains indispensable to humanistic inquiry today.” —Journal of Theological Studies
"Thomas Pfau’s argument is bold: concepts of personhood—rationality, consciousness, judgment, responsibility, and will—have, since the thirteenth century, been so shorn of their distinction and truth value that they have crippled all modern formulations of human agency. More than a decline narrative, Minding the Modern is a thick narration of the systematic forgetting of the hard-won content of these concepts, counterilluminated by a few resilient thinkers who refused to participate in modernity’s collective amnesia. . . . the consequent depth and richness of the interpretation of these canonical texts—nimbly supported with scholarly citation and counterinterpretation—will not fail to impress and, I think, consistently persuade." —The Journal of Religion
“As with many cartographies of modernity, Pfau covers enormous intellectual ground here. But by limiting his scope to the metamorphosis affecting the relationship between the will and the intellect, he sheds much needed light on how the once indissoluble, metaphysical link between human agency and responsible knowledge gradually became severed. . . . This is, above all, a scholarly work of remembering: both what it once meant to be human and how those ancient possibilities might revitalize a contemporary area of decay.” —Religious Studies Review
“The sheer depth of Pfau’s scholarship must deter criticism. His philosophical claims are underwritten by his dazzling erudite close readings, and he traverses with ease a vast intellectual terrain. . . . The case that Pfau makes is compelling, and its urgency . . . is hardly over-stated.” —European Romantic Review