on Thomas Pfau’s “Minding the Modern”

Minding-the-Modern-199x300Elizabeth Pritchard at Immanent Frame:

Let me start with a confession. I am not particularly keen on stories of modernity in which “modernity” figures as a character and in which the plot—surprise—entails a “fall” or “break.” Thomas Pfau’s Minding the Modern is a long telling of this tale, containing some wonderfully astute scenes and bringing on stage two of my favorite thinkers, John Locke and Theodor Adorno (the first appearing as a culprit and the second as an ally). I am not unmoved by Pfau’s convictions and arguments that what appears to be human advancement is actually decline (325). Nonetheless, I find myself appreciating the worldliness and ostentatiousness of Adorno’s miniaturized version of this story: “No universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb.” Pfau frames his argument as an exploration of and possible solution to the crisis in the humanities. For him, that crisis is not the devaluation of humanistic study in a context of the corporatization of higher education and intense competition for scarce and unstable employment. Rather, it is his sense that we are suffering through a case of amnesia. (I am putting aside, for the moment, who it is that constitutes this “we.”) According to Pfau, we have forgotten the conceptual framework of human personhood and thus have a “stunted conception of the will” or, more ominously, “[have atrophied] our capacity for articulate reasoning about ends” (10, 398, 325). Pfau’s equivocation as to whether the problem is a conception or an actual impairment of the will or agency is telling. Pfau is convinced that our conceptual portfolio shapes and reflects our capacity for reasoning, judging, and willing. Yet this is a different, and far less contentious, point than the one that insists that a particular vocabulary or argument is either in accord with or detrimental to moral judgment and moral behavior. For instance, does Thomas Hobbes’s denial of a qualitative divide between humans and other animals really “cause us to stray into very dangerous moral territory” (203)?

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