Monday, March 21, 2016

Book Review: Minding the Modern by Thomas Pfau

If you want to ask the big questions, you're going to have to read the big books. At least, that's what I kept telling myself as I measured my progress through this book after a week of reading only to find that I was 10% done. Pfau is a professor of English, but I think that were this written a century ago, it would have been classified as philology. The focus is indeed on words (or, more precisely, the concepts behind the words): will, person, teleology, and purpose are traced through Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Occam, Hobbes, Locke, Smith, etc. up through the time of the Romantics (with appropriate flash-forwards to the debates about these terms in the modern day). Considering the ground that Pfau covers, this huge book actually seems quite short, and I actually found its level of detail to be just about perfect to cover the evolution of the concept of what is a person.

For all that, much of the book seems to come down to what thinkers thought of as the strength and utility of one of the biggest of little words: the "logos." What is the nature of the structure "outside" us, and how does it relate to the structure "inside" us? Is the universe ultimately about material or about relationship? It is something to dominate or something to receive as a gift?

I found it fascinating and well worth the effort to read something this far outside of my discipline. I've found that I come down on the side that we can participate in the logos by telling stories, and that those stories aren't just constructed and contingent, but are in fact true.

The last fourth of the book turns its focus to Coleridge as a thinker whose ideas may offer a way out of the materialist cul-de-sac we seem to be trapped in as the default philosophy of the century. I've run into Coleridge before and, I agree, his philosophy of starting with the "responsible will" inside rather than the material outside does seem to be a way forward. My only complaint is that I would have liked more about Coleridge's thinking, because as it stands I have to do a lot more reading on my own to figure out how to go forward in my field following Coleridge's example. The good news is I'm colleagues with a Coleridge expert, so the fact that I work at a liberal arts university and have friends like that is a big help moving forward. But if I had my wishes, this book would have split off and expanded the third part (the one about Coleridge), because I want to know so much more. Even the third part didn't have quite enough about Coleridge, because it frequently talked about other thinkers like Schopenhauer for pages on end, when I more wanted to get away from the negative examples and toward the positive ones.

This fits with Barfield (and less obviously with Deacon), and provides a valuable intellectual scaffold for moving forward with Coleridge's thinking as we head into the 21st century. Well, well worth the read, even for a scientist like myself.

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