Monday, June 8, 2009

Kant and the Birth of the Modern

June 6, 2009

Giles Fraser in his weekly column for The Church Times ( takes on certain kinds of ‘irrational’ behavior and wonders if they aren’t examples of Immanuel Kant’s idea of the transcendental, a precondition for a certain kind of social experience. I have never found Kant easy and a recent foray into some aspects of his thought has been no exception. David Pacini has written Through Narcissus’ Glass Darkly: The Modern Religion of Conscience.(Fordham University Press, 2008) which is described as a ‘close reading’ of certain aspects of the philosophies of Kant, Hobbes, Rousseau and others in an articulation of the modern religion of conscience, (with ‘modern’ referring to the period known as ‘modernism’.) It was a little like reading a very dense chapter in Paul Johnson’s wonderful history, The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830 (Harper Collins, 1991) in which he suggests that the roots of the modern age (that is the age which many think we are now ‘post’) are found within a fifteen year period.

Drawing on art and poetry along with the philosophers, Pacini finds commonalities and differences in three philosophers who would not normally be taken together. Notably, they all seek to find some way of looking at humans that neither mires them completely in earth, nor grants them the status of angels, but sees them somewhere in between and in need of modification in order to achieve great purpose. This, as Pacini shows, leads to the development of the idea of conscience as emancipation from religious dogmatism and re-ordered religion as a kind of moral ordering of the individual and society. We see the remnants (and also signs of the problems inherent in this move toward conscience in the popular ideas that ‘religion is an individual or private matter’, contra revealed theology as the exclusive preserve of religious institutions; and ‘I take my children to church so that they can have a moral foundation for life’ or the idea that religion is really about making us and our society ‘good’ or ‘better’.

Pacini takes us through the development of this modernist idea of conscience and then looks at its later critics in Wittgenstein, Freud and Barth (leading me to wonder if early Wittgenstein marks the end of modernism, does his later work define the beginning of post-modernism?) In the end Kant’s conviction that conscience leads to a just and harmonious order is deemed incoherent as Pacini looks to amore relational solution dependent on ever-shifting perspective. In this regard I come back to the idea that I have written about before namely John W Dixon’s ‘theological theory of relativity. Though Narcissus’ Glass Darkly is more than a work of strictly historical philosophy and theology and more a clue as to how we find ourselves in a post modern imaginative world and points to an agenda for that age of making connections in a world without any clear meta-narrative.

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