Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Being Modern, Being Beyond

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Being Modern, Being Beyond

Article excerpt

In his deliberately futuristic novel, Love in the Ruins, Walker Percy's main character, Doctor Thomas More, begins by musing over his role as physician, which is to say, as healer. He discovers that his patients have more to teach him than he they, of late. He deems this as one more sign of the apocalypse, the experience of cosmic finality, a sense of an ending which is more global now than personal. "A note for physicians:" More writes, as much to himself as anyone, "if you listen carefully to what patients say, they will often tell you not only what is wrong with them but also what is wrong with you."1 It would be good for those of us who lay claim to the august title of "professor" to recall this advice. I often find myself singularly instructed by my students.

As I was again recently, in an upper-level seminar devoted to the study of "Comparative Religious Ethics:' We had been hard at work in attempting to understand what the theorist we were reading that week actually meant by what he clearly intended as a technical term. That term was "modern." One of the students' eyes lit up in a sudden flash of insight. "Yes," he smiled brightly, things coming suddenly into focus, "I just took a seminar in the Philosophy department which was called `Modern Philosophy.' I thought it would help me to understand what is going on in philosophy around the world today. Imagine my disappointment when all we did was to read European thinkers from Descartes to Kant!"

From Descartes to Kant, and from France to Germany, via "Middle Europe"; this pretty well sketches out the contours of"the modern," at least as contemporary Europeans have come to understand that term. That there are other ways to understand our modernity seems especially clear from the standpoint of somewhere, and sometime, else. This will prove to be a matter of some significance in assessing the extraordinary achievement of this author's first book,* which appears as part of the University of Chicago's "Religion and Postmodernism" series, edited by Mark C. Taylor.

While the book forces many questions simultaneously upon even its most casual reader, one particularly struck home. It seemed an apt question with which to begin these reflections on modernity, and the beyond. What do we really mean by "postmodern," after all? And more specifically, what does Thomas Carlson understand the term to mean? It is one of the chief virtues of this book-and its stunning achievements are many-that it answers this question, as it essays to answer all of the pertinent questions it raises with such elegance and care.

Clearly, built into the word "postmodern" are all the vagaries we encounter in any contemporary notion of modernity. What, then, do we really mean by that? For Carlson, who is himself well-trained in Continental philosophy as well as in the history of Christian thought, the answer takes us back to the critical tradition initiated by Kant and then advanced, if not actually "completed," by Hegel. To be post-modern means, in a really quite singular way, to be post-Heideggerian, to live in a world of thought which has taken Heidegger's far more radical (that is, allegedly more radical than Hegel's) thinking of the thought of finitude to heart. And the thinking of such finitude will prove to have enormous theological significance within the Christian tradition, given its long-standing concerns for Incarnation, Trinity, and the human challenge of essaying to name its God. So might the philosopher answer.

The cultural historian (for so might I possibly name myself) might give a slightly different answer; "postmodern," after all, is a word which means different things to philosophers, to poets, and to architects, to name a few professionals who have taken to the term like ducks to clear water. The cultural historian's answer, too, will bring us back to one of Carlson's decisive theoretical points. One might denote the "modern" period, historically speaking, as the era in which the French and the Germans vied for intellectual, not to say political and military, hegemony on the Continent. …

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