Saturday, May 14, 2016
Book Review: The Shape of the New by Montgomery and Chirot
I can't help but compare this book to Minding the Modern by Thomas Pfau. Both take a wide-angle lens to history and trace the evolution of thinking -- The Shape of the New through four thinkers' works (Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, and the Jefferson/Hamilton dialogue), but Minding the Modern through about as many words (person, will, purpose, etc.). Pfau goes back farther, is much more critical of the Enlightenment, and in the end focuses his narrative on a single thinker, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The conversation between The Shape of the New and Minding the Modern is valuable. The Shape of the New is much more conventional (and easier to read). Even so, it filled in a few gaps for me historically, especially with Marx. Montgomery and Chirot have found a useful "zoom level" for their approach. They lay out the horrors of Marx and Social Darwinism as succinctly as anymore. They also make a good effort to be fair to the Counter-Enlightenment thinkers, incorporating some of Philip Jenkins' work on the church in the developing world, for example. Despite these efforts, they remain fully pro-Enlightenment, reminding me of a colleague's remark that academia is inherently conservative. Pfau comes off as relatively revolutionary in his emphasis on critique. Although they know all the reasons why so many people are against the Enlightenment (or more properly want to reform it in some way), Montgomery and Chirot never seem to quite understand at a gut level why someone would be against the obvious gains of the Enlightenment, and as such, the closest the book comes to being revolutionary at the end is a daring call for more humanities education. Pfau's analysis is more fruitful, because it works better to analyze words rather than nebulous ideas, and because he ends with a specific, underappreciated thinker in the person of Coleridge. Montgomery and Chirot talk about how important it is to read the original texts, but they do so in a book that doesn't actually quote the original texts much -- Pfau quotes original texts much more than they do! In the end, I'll take Pfau, but better yet, I'll read both books and realize that it's Pfau's analysis that sticks with me and gives me a direction. Still, Montgomery and Chirot have written a fine book because it allows for this kind of deep comparison to other thinkers' works, and I think if we continue to debate at this level, there's hope of true progress in this discussion.