The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 16 No. 1 (Spring 2014)

Thomas Pfau's Minding the Modern: Human Agency, Intellectual Traditions, and Responsible Knowledge

Steven Knepper

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 16.1 (Spring 2014). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2014

(Volume 16 | Issue 1)

Any author aspiring to write a “big book” about modernity must contend with a daunting tradition that includes Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method, Hans Blumenberg’s The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory, and Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. Thomas Pfau, a professor of English and German at Duke University, appears comfortable with the challenge, even taking many points of emphasis from those central texts. Those topics include modernity’s roots in late medieval theology (Blumenberg, Milbank, Taylor), the need for humanistic inquiry to be broadly hermeneutic rather than reductively historicist (Gadamer), and the necessity of recovering premodern conceptions of human action and ethics (Arendt, MacIntyre).

In his contribution to this literature, Pfau traces the premodern evolution and modern devolution of the concept of human agency. Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, and Augustine all shared and contributed to a conception of human beings as self-aware, relational, and capable of sound judgment and virtuous action. That complex perspective was gradually taken apart in the late Middle Ages and early modern period. William of Ockham, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke all contributed to its dismantling, taking aim at the idea of universal categories, humans’ fundamentally cooperative social nature, and even rationality itself. According to Pfau, dismantling agency has left many moderns unable to adequately describe the richness of their lived experience. They suffer, he writes, from a “condition of progressive conceptual amnesia, which in turn results in an increasingly stunted outlook on human agency.” Pfau attacks modern conceptions as reductionist, deterministic, and at times plainly incoherent.

This will strike many as a reactionary argument. To test its strength, though, one might consider Pfau’s discussion of habit. Modern thinkers as different as René Descartes, Immanuel Kant, and Henry David Thoreau found habit stultifying, “an invariant and mindless mechanism corrosive of rational agency.” But Pfau sees this as a reductionist view. Moderns, he believes, too often fail to capture the difference between a dog slobbering at the sound of its rattled food dish and a master violinist “practicing over and over her scales or some intractable passage in a score.” As repetition becomes habit, the violinist can move on to increasingly more complex pieces of music. Pfau uses this example to illustrate Thomas Aquinas’s alternative conception of habit as something that actually increases freedom by expanding agency.

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Steven Knepper is an assistant professor of English at Erskine College, in Due West, South Carolina.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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