Thomas Pfau’s Minding the Modern is an example of what we might call the genealogical unmasking of modernity. Such genealogies are usually thought to have originated with Nietzsche, who famously sought to reveal the pretentions of Judeo-Christian “slave morality” by telling the story of its origins in the ressentiment of the weak against the strong. The basic form of this genre involves taking a present phenomenon that seems to be simply obvious and unquestionable and giving an account of its origins and development that reveals it to be historically contingent and therefore dubious.

There has been a proliferation of these genealogies in the fields of philosophy and theology over the past forty years, and Pfau draws on several of them in constructing his. Particularly significant sources for Pfau’s narrative are Hans Blumenberg’s The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, Alasdair MacIntyre’s Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory, Louis Dupré’s Passage to Modernity, and Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. Pfau shares with all these writers a sense that there is something wrong with the modern world, and that an account of the genesis and development of modernity will help us diagnose the ailment and prescribe a cure.

What, according to Pfau, afflicts modernity? At one point, he offers the following list of “notions” that are presumed in the “disciplinary, professional, and institutional habits” of modernity: “the public sphere, possessive individualism, an axiomatically secular (means/end) model of rationality, and a disciplinary and professional concept of ‘labor’ alternately fashioned or critiqued by modern discourses of political economy and academic Marxism.” But these are secondary symptoms of a more fundamental malaise—“the supposition that the spheres of human knowledge and human action, theoretical and practical rationality, are fundamentally distinct and possibly altogether unrelated.” In other words, the modern world has divided itself up into a realm of “facts,” which reason identifies and catalogues, and a realm of “values,” which are the spontaneous product of the will. Reason and the will operate independently of each other. To paraphrase Pascal, the will has its reasons about which reason knows nothing. Reason might lead us to enter into various forms of social contract for our own preservation, and those contracts might constrain the will, but willing itself remains fundamentally irrational. This understanding of the relationship of reason and will is often called “voluntarism.” It is the root cause of the pervasive emotivism of modern moral discourse. It also explains the presumption that social norms are essentially coercive—though sometimes necessary—impositions on our individual freedom. The consequences of this are simultaneously personal and political. “A political community no longer capable of distinguishing between engaging an idea and holding an opinion…is almost certainly in advanced decline,” Pfau warns.

In Pfau’s account, the self was understood as an integrated nexus of reason and will until the late thirteenth century, when Franciscan theologians like William of Ockham began pulling reason and will apart from each other. According to Pfau, Ockham’s nominalism sets the trajectory for the modern evacuation of the self. It does this by replacing common natures (such as “squareness” or “humanity”) with common names shared by individuals; by emphasizing the omnipotence of God in terms of a distinction between God’s absolute power (what God can do) and God’s ordained power (what God has in fact willed to do); and by understanding the moral life as a willing obedience to God’s law rather than as the cultivation of virtue in light of our perception of God’s truth. The net effect of this “momentous shift from the Thomistic synthesis of Aristotelianism and Augustinianism” is a theology “wherein agents, situations, and meanings are no longer connected to an underlying rational order or substantial form but, instead, prove inherently discontinuous.” In other words, there is no inherent order of things, or of the self, but only a contingent order willed by the omnipotent God. In Thomas Hobbes, three centuries later, this Franciscan theology is secularized, with the omnipotent self taking the place of an omnipotent God. Like the God of nominalism, this self is essentially will, unconstrained by reason, with no intrinsic nature apart from the identity it chooses for itself. For Pfau, the tag team of Ockham and Hobbes are responsible for the fundamental contours of modernity.


As Pfau notes, this is a story that has been told before by such luminaries as Blumenberg, Milbank, Taylor, and Dupré. (I confess that many years ago I myself wrote a book that included a similar narrative.) So what, if anything, is new here? Pfau says that earlier genealogical accounts of modernity “unfolded as high-altitude surveys of intellectual shifts,” whereas his account rests on “the kind of close, textual analysis that, at its best, has always been the bread and butter of literary studies.” And, sure enough, Pfau has lengthy discussions of a dizzying array of figures: Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Ockham, Hobbes, Cudworth, Shaftesbury, Mandeville, Hutcheson, Locke, Hume, Adam Smith, Blake, and, particularly, Coleridge. The last few chapters of the book are a dense treatment of Coleridge’s philosophical, theological, and political thought that presents him as a vital resource for responding to modern voluntarism.

As is clear from that list, this is largely an Anglo-Protestant story and, while one would hardly wish for a book this long to be any longer, I can’t help wondering how the narrative would have looked had some attention been paid to, say, Spain or Italy. Did modernity really flow into the rest of the world from the British Isles (even Ockham is English), or does Pfau’s selection of figures serve his narrative purposes? Would attention to early-modern Catholic cultures have resulted in a less dramatic rupture between the modern and the premodern?

Not everyone gets close literary analysis. Numerous figures simply get grouped together in lists of names that are supposed to represent a certain type of thinker or movement of thought. Not only are such lists stylistically unfortunate, they are sometimes puzzling. Take, for example, a list representing the “tradition” that rejects the concept of mind because of “its alleged indemonstrability in terms of the modern scientific method.” The list includes Nietzsche, Frege, Wittgenstein, Ryle, Derrida, Lyotard, Daniel Dennett, and David Chalmers. One can only imagine the horror Daniel Dennett would feel at finding himself in the same category as Lyotard, and the presence of Frege and Wittgenstein on this list will be perplexing to many who have read them. Pfau may have good, textually grounded reasons for this list, but he doesn’t offer them here. And so this and other lists he presents function as rhetorical flourishes, or bludgeons, not as arguments.

These are relatively minor complaints. More troubling are Pfau’s accounts of some of the figures to whom he does give close attention. The Anglo-Protestant figures Pfau focuses on are beyond my area of expertise, so I cannot judge with any confidence how accurate and insightful his treatments of them are. But I am familiar with medieval philosophy and theology, and I find some of his claims about both Ockham and Aquinas to be dubious. To put it bluntly, the discussion of Ockham hardly lives up to Pfau’s stated goal of “close, textual analysis.” In the twenty-two-page chapter that deals with Ockham, there are, by my count, six actual citations from Ockham’s text, plus one citation of Ockham drawn from a secondary source. Given the pivotal role he plays in Pfau’s narrative, one would expect a closer reading of Ockham’s own words. In the few places where Pfau does quote him (as opposed to the many places where Pfau quotes secondary sources that summarize Ockham’s views, often in tendentious ways), we tend to get provocative fragments (e.g., “no act is necessarily virtuous”) without any context. Reading only Pfau, one wouldn’t know that Ockham has extensive discussions of the nature of virtue, and that he does in fact believe that an act of the will by which God is loved above all things is necessarily virtuous. Nor could one guess from Pfau’s account that, despite Ockham’s emphasis on the will, he believed the accord of action with “right reason” is a key feature of virtue. Ockham is justly known for his dialectical acumen, and to fail to engage the actual arguments underlying his positions is to do him an injustice. One need not agree with Ockham (and I don’t) to think that he receives shabby treatment here.

Pfau’s discussion of Aquinas is skewed by his desire to put Aquinas at as great a distance from Ockham as possible. Ockham’s view that “the good is whatever God wills” is contrasted with the view, attributed to Aquinas, that “God must will whatever is (determined by nature) as good.” But this is clearly wrong, both as a matter of theology and as an interpretation of Aquinas. One need not be a radical voluntarist to hold that, while human beings love things on account of their goodness, the things are good in the first place because of God’s love for them. And, indeed, this is Aquinas’s view (see Summa theologiae 1 q. 20 a. 2). Had it not been, the suspicions of Aquinas’s contemporaries that he had subjected the divine will to necessity would have been correct.

Similarly, Pfau’s account of Aquinas seems to minimize the distinction between faith and reason, the better to distance Aquinas’s view from Ockham’s. Here’s how Pfau formulates Aquinas’s position: “whatever rational orientation the individual may conceivably achieve…has to be located in an economy of operative and cooperative grace.” But this makes it sound as if, for Aquinas, natural reason and supernatural faith are both gifts in precisely the same way—as if there is an identity between the order of nature and the order of grace. Ironically, the view here ascribed to Aquinas seems more like the illuminationist view of his Franciscan contemporary Bonaventure, who, according to Pfau, is partly responsible for the Franciscan “disenchantment of Aristotelian and Thomist cosmology.” Thomas is much clearer—particularly in his mature theology—in distinguishing God’s gift of creation and general providence from God’s free gift of saving grace (see Summa theologiae 1–2 q. 109 a. 6). In his effort to paint Aquinas in the boldest nonvoluntarist colors possible, Pfau again seems to compromise a distinction Thomas takes great pains to preserve.


Aside from my qualms about some of the specific claims made about specific thinkers, I have a more general qualm about the exclusive focus on thinkers. Though Pfau does occasionally mention material conditions that accompanied intellectual shifts, this is really a story of ideas. But was modernity really produced by theologians and philosophers rather than—to name but a few events and movements—the Black Death, the Italian Renaissance, the printing press, the discovery by Europe of the western hemisphere, the Reformation, the invention of the telescope and microscope, and the so-called Wars of Religion that accompanied the rise of the nation state? Pfau’s narrative mentions these things only in passing or not at all.

This focus on ideas and thinkers is hardly unique to Pfau. Genealogists tend to give accounts of the origins of modernity that focus on ideas. Perhaps this is because genealogists tend to be academics; and academics are, by profession, thinkers. We academics like to believe that our culture thought its way into the dilemma of modernity, because then we could think our way out of it. We hope to achieve what Pfau, near the beginning of his book, calls “a comprehensive grasp of our historical situation.” But what if our narratives of ideas give us a false sense of comprehension? Might we be better served by a more complex narrative that includes not only thinkers and their ideas, but also the imponderable complexity of natural and social forces?

Do Pfau’s questionable claims about Aquinas and Ockham make his account of our current situation any less convincing? He mentions that certain historical claims that John Milbank has made concerning Ockham’s key role in creating the opposition between “right order” and “individual rights” have been shown by other scholars to be mistaken. Pfau adds, however, that it doesn’t matter what the genesis of modern notions of individual rights is; what matters is that we no longer ground these rights in the notion of “right order.” But if the assessment of our modern malaise can stand without the genealogical narrative, what is the point of the narrative? Nietzsche was already convinced that Judeo-Christian morality was pernicious before he began his genealogical inquiry, and he constructed his narrative to bolster that conviction. Perhaps this is true of all genealogies, including Pfau’s: their purpose is not to tell us about the past but to strengthen our convictions about the present. If this is so, then genealogy ironically turns out to be a strikingly voluntarist genre, oriented more toward the will than toward the intellect. This should come as no surprise, since -Nietzsche, the progenitor of the genre, was modernity’s supreme voluntarist.

I, for one, do think there’s something to Pfau’s assessment of our culture as voluntaristic. In our public discourse we can find ample evidence that assertions of rights seem disconnected from any shared sense what is or is not right. In my discussions with students I frequently see appeals to feeling or experience trumping any reasoned argument. And in our consumer culture we see ourselves subjected to appeals that presume we are nothing but engines of irrational desire. Yet my agreement with Pfau’s assessment of our present does not require me to accept his geneology. In fact, I am inclined to think that the malaise of modern voluntarism is simply one form of the perennial malaise of the human race, whose genesis is to be found not in Ockham and his progeny, but long ago in a garden.

Perhaps the problem is not the quality of Pfau’s narrative but the narrative strategy itself. Perhaps the time has come to retire genealogy and return to old-fashioned argumentation. Rather than tell a story about where voluntarism came from, why not concentrate on why voluntarism is wrong? But I wonder if Pfau even sees this as an option, since he notes at the outset that “modern and premodern constructions of the world truly are incommensurable.” So those who prize reason and right order and those who prize the will and individual rights do not share a framework of agreed-upon truths that would make a productive argument between them possible. For the genealogist, the best we can hope for is to out-narrate our opponent. But perhaps we do not need a comprehensive framework but only a few finger- and toe-holds. If we truly aspire to the kind of faith in reason that Pfau finds in the premodern world, then maybe we should trust that modernity has not entirely corrupted human nature and that true arguments can still find a purchase eight hundred years after Ockham.

Published in the February 6, 2015 issue: 

Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt is associate professor of theology at Loyola University Maryland and a deacon of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

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