Europe in Search of Europeans   /   Spring 2014   /    Book Reviews

The Big Book of Modernity

Steven Knepper

Philosophers by photographymontreal; flickr.

Tracing premodern evolution and the modern development of the concept of human agency.

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.

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