11 Most Important Critiques of Modernity According to Thomas Pfau

11 Most Important Critiques of Modernity According to Thomas Pfau March 5, 2015

Today is a breakdown of things breaking down in modernity. (Paul Klee, Tree Nursery, 1929) Today is a breakdown of things breaking down in modernity. (Paul Klee, Tree Nursery, 1929)
The Glory of Modernity Fading: Today is a breakdown of things breaking down in modernity. (Paul Klee, Tree Nursery, 1929)

Of making many books there is no end: and much study is an affliction of the flesh.

One of the dangers of reading books is finding other very important books that you simply must read in order to understand the books you are already reading. This is how I got trapped into going to graduate school.

My parents once bought an anthology of American poets. It was a high school anthology, I think. I did not read most of the book, but I made the mistake of thumbing through the table of contents. There I found the name “Czeslaw Milosz,” which looked vaguely Polish to me. And so that’s how I came to read his poem “Encounter”:

We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
A red wing rose in the darkness.

And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

This started me on a reading trajectory through fields of books and culminated with the completion of my dissertation The Catholic Imagination of Czeslaw Milosz. You can now read my dissertation for free in pdf form if you follow that link, but I would advise against it.

If you must, read the Introduction, which is by far the best written and most important part of my scribblings. I would also ask you to made a goodwill donation through the paypal button in the right hand corner of my Patheos homepage below the first banner ad. We really could use the money for yet another move at the end of this month. Freelance work is not keeping us financially afloat.

I’ve made the mistake of picking up another book that’s full of great recommendations, Thomas Pfau’s Minding the Modern, which I’ve briefly mentioned here and here and will review for The Review of Metaphysics. This is yet another book that’s sent me scrambling toward many other books, especially when Pfau dropped the footnote of all footnotes. It is a list of all the most important critiques of modernity. I’ll reproduce it for you below along with publisher blurbs and links.


I’ve read around four of these and have read large chunks of about four others. These are great books.

0. Opus Maximum by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

This book is not officially on the list, but it informs Pfau’s book throughout, especially the last third. That’s why I’ve numbered it zero.

It also seems to be optimum.
It also seems to be optimum.

Dedicated to “the reconcilement of the moral faith with the Reason,” Coleridge’s envisioned Magnum Opus was supposed to “reduce all knowledges into harmony.” While such a synthesis finally eluded him, and the Magnum Opus remained unfinished, the surviving fragments nonetheless bear powerful witness to Coleridge’s engagement with theology, moral philosophy, natural philosophy, and logic, among other disciplines. Among the subjects that will particularly interest readers are Coleridge’s criticisms of Epicureanism, pantheism, and German Naturphilosophie; his attempt to ground reason in faith; and his reflections on personhood (especially in the relationship between mother and child), on will, on language, and on the Logos.

The grandaddy of them all.
The grandaddy of them all.

1. Being and Time (1928) by Martin Heidegger

“What is the meaning of being?” This is the central question of Martin Heidegger’s profoundly important work, in which the great philosopher seeks to explain the basic problems of existence. A central influence on later philosophy, literature, art, and criticism—as well as existentialism and much of postmodern thought—Being and Time forever changed the intellectual map of the modern world. As Richard Rorty wrote in the New York Times Book Review, “You cannot read most of the important thinkers of recent times without taking Heidegger’s thought into account.”

adorno horkheimer
Reason betraying rather than betrayed.

2. The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1946) by Horkheimer and Adorno

Dialectic of Enlightenment is undoubtedly the most influential publication of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. Written during the Second World War and circulated privately, it appeared in a printed edition in Amsterdam in 1947. “What we had set out to do,” the authors write in the Preface, “was nothing less than to explain why humanity, instead of entering a truly human state, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism.”

Something interesting was born here.
Something interesting was born here.

3. The Human Condition (1958) by Hannah Arendt

A work of striking originality bursting with unexpected insights, The Human Condition is in many respects more relevant now than when it first appeared in 1958. In her study of the state of modern humanity, Hannah Arendt considers humankind from the perspective of the actions of which it is capable. The problems Arendt identified then—diminishing human agency and political freedom, the paradox that as human powers increase through technological and humanistic inquiry, we are less equipped to control the consequences of our actions—continue to confront us today. This new edition, published to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of its original publication, contains an improved and expanded index and a new introduction by noted Arendt scholar Margaret Canovan which incisively analyzes the book’s argument and examines its present relevance. A classic in political and social theory, The Human Condition is a work that has proved both timeless and perpetually timely.

4. Truth and Method (1960) by Hans-Georg Gadamer

This is one I have and must reader after reading Pfau.
This is one I have and must read after reading Pfau.

Truth and Method is a landmark work of 20th century thought which established Hans Georg-Gadamer as one of the most important philosophical voices of the 20th Century. In this book, Gadamer established the field of ‘philosophical hermeneutics’: exploring the nature of knowledge, the book rejected traditional quasi-scientific approaches to establishing cultural meaning that were prevalent after the war. In arguing the ‘truth’ and ‘method’ acted in opposition to each other, Gadamer examined the ways in which historical and cultural circumstance fundamentally influenced human understanding. It was an approach that would become hugely influential in the humanities and social sciences and remains so to this day in the work of Jurgen Habermas and many others.

Little known fact: Foucault spent time in Poland in the French embassy and later did much to support Solidarity.
Little known facts: Young Foucault spent time in Poland working in the French embassy and later did much to support Solidarity.

5. The Order of Things (1966) by Michel Foucault

When one defines “order” as a sorting of priorities, it becomes beautifully clear as to what Foucault is doing here. With virtuoso showmanship, he weaves an intensely complex history of thought. He dips into literature, art, economics and even biology in The Order of Things, possibly one of the most significant, yet most overlooked, works of the twentieth century. Eclipsed by his later work on power and discourse, nonetheless it was The Order of Things that established Foucault’s reputation as an intellectual giant. Pirouetting around the outer edge of language, Foucault unsettles the surface of literary writing. In describing the limitations of our usual taxonomies, he opens the door onto a whole new system of thought, one ripe with what he calls “exotic charm”. Intellectual pyrotechnics from the master of critical thinking, this book is crucial reading for those who wish to gain insight into that odd beast called Postmodernism, and a must for any fan of Foucault.

blumenberg modern
This is one that crops up in footnotes everywhere. I should really read it sometime.

6. The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (1966) by Hans Blumenberg

In this book, Hans Blumenberg disputes the view that the modern idea of progress represents a secularization of religious belief in some divine intervention (the coming of the Messiah, the end of the world) which consummates human history from outside. Drawing from sources ranging from Aristotle and Augustine to Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, and Kuhn – with an impressive number of stops between – he argues that progress always implies a process at work within history, a process that ultimately expresses human choices, human self-assertion, and man’s responsibility for his own fate.

This is the book where Dreher first found the Benedict option.
This is the book where Dreher first found the Benedict option.

7. After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre

In this classic work, Alasdair MacIntyre examines the historical and conceptual roots of the idea of virtue, diagnoses the reasons for its absence in personal and public life, and offers a tentative proposal for its recovery. While the individual chapters are wide-ranging, once pieced together they comprise a penetrating and focused argument about the price of modernity. In the Third Edition prologue, MacIntyre revisits the central theses of the book and concludes that although he has learned a great deal and has supplemented and refined his theses and arguments in other works, he has “as yet found no reason for abandoning the major contentions” of this book. While he recognizes that his conception of human beings as virtuous or vicious needed not only a metaphysical but also a biological grounding, ultimately he remains “committed to the thesis that it is only from the standpoint of a very different tradition, one whose beliefs and presuppositions were articulated in their classical form by Aristotle, that we can understand both the genesis and the predicament of moral modernity.”

8. Sources of the Self  (1989) by Charles Taylor

This is the first really, really, really big book of philosophy I ever did read.
This is the first really, really, really big book of philosophy I ever did read.

In this extensive inquiry into the sources of modern selfhood, Charles Taylor demonstrates just how rich and precious those resources are. The modern turn to subjectivity, with its attendant rejection of an objective order of reason, has led–it seems to many–to mere subjectivism at the mildest and to sheer nihilism at the worst. Many critics believe that the modern order has no moral backbone and has proved corrosive to all that might foster human good. Taylor rejects this view. He argues that, properly understood, our modern notion of the self provides a framework that more than compensates for the abandonment of substantive notions of rationality.

I know nothing about this book.
I know nothing about this book.

9. Consequences of Modernity (1990) by Anthony Giddens

In developing a fresh characterization of the nature of modernity, the author concentrates on the themes of security versus danger and o trust versus risk. Modernity is a double-edged phenomenon. The development of modern social institutions has created vastly greater opportunities for human beings to enjoy a secure and rewarding existence than in any type of pre-modern system. But modernity also has a somber side that has become very important in the present century, such as the frequently degrading nature of modern industrial work, the growth of totalitarianism, the threat of environmental destruction, and the alarming development of military power and weaponry.

10. Passage to Modernity (1993) by Louis Dupre

One of my favorites.
One of my favorites.

Did modernity begin with the Renaissance and end with post-modernity? In this book a distinguished scholar challenges both these assumptions. Louis Dupré discusses the roots, development, and impact of modern thought, tracing the fundamental principles of modernity to the late fourteenth century and affirming that modernity is still an influential force in contemporary culture. The combination of late medieval theology and early Italian humanism shattered the traditional synthesis that had united cosmic, human, and transcendent components in a comprehensive idea of nature. Early Italian humanism transformed the traditional worldview by its unprecedented emphasis on human creativity. The person emerged as the sole source of meaning while nature was reduced to an object and transcendence withdrew into a “supernatural” realm.

Damn fine reading.
Damn fine reading.

11.Theology and Social Theory by John Milbank

In modern times, the social sciences have sought to explain religion from a neutral, secular vantage-point. In response, theology has tried to legitimate itself by building upon social scientific conclusions. In this acclaimed book, John Milbank suggests that both enterprises are compromised by the theological and anti-theological assumptions built into the social sciences themselves.

I would only add two books to the list. Conspicuously missing are Voegelin’s Order and History and Brad S. Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation. Pfau employs the latter throughout Minding the Modern, so he makes up for the omission in other footnotes.

See also my posts on the Catholic Heidegger; Hannah Arendt as Fundamental Theologian; and MacIntyre and Disability.

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